As I walked around the tech company’s office over the weeks I spent on site, I heard quiet complaints about international leads and clients from some of the client-facing staff.
“That accent was so thick that I couldn’t understand her.”
“They don’t know how to follow a normal buying process.”
“I really don’t like dealing with people from _________.”
And a disturbing confession: “I put the international follow up at the bottom of my task list.”
The top leadership of this software company, including the CEO and the CHRO, lived and breathed inclusion in all forms and were planning for the company’s impending global expansion. But neither realized the pervasiveness of anti-international passive aggressive actions from on the front lines of the company.
This is not an uncommon problem as companies grow beyond their early domestic-only stage to accidental exporter. But the issue often doesn’t stop there. It continues on as companies realize the untapped potential of their overseas markets unseen because decisions are made subtly by often young, less experienced sales, marketing, client services and finance staff.
It would be simplistic to say that this is just a human resources issue. But it affects many company functions:
• It affects marketing in that new customer data is skewed away from international.
• It affects sales because potential clients are left underserved or ignored, leaving unrealized revenue.
• It affects customer service department performance ratings when international clients are left to wait longer.
• And it affects long-term financial planning where market demand is a key metric for deciding where to allocate resources.
So what can be done to ensure that your staff is ready to make the most of ALL opportunities? Here are a few ideas:
1. Expose staff to cultural differences.
While there may be some well-traveled, multicultural staff on your front-line teams, there are likely many that don’t have that background or perspective. If it can be worked into the budget, send a representative staff member to your newly opened overseas office to better understand the business style differences and to explain how the headquarters’ processes. This could mean an up-and-coming sales rep gets to visit India for a week to dig into the differences between sales in the two markets in order to find best practices from both. Your staff member will likely return with many stories about his or her experiences, as well as be able to give perspective on Indian selling. One experience by one less-traveled staff member tends to have a multiplier effect – sharing perspective with many peers and understanding that other cultures will look at the same situation in a completely different way. This approach can work well, but choose employees who would appreciate the experience and naturally share with others.
2. Incorporate Engaging Cultural Elements. Travel is the best but is not always possible, so another exposure option is to highlight a key market for a day. If India is a key market, then India’s Republic Day is January 26, Independence Day is August 15 and Gandhi Jayanthi is October 2 – all good choices. Besides catering in Indian food for lunch and piping in Indian music, it can also be a day to highlight key Indian clients, leads, and market potential for the company. Staff pay more attention when they think something is important, particularly to leadership.
3. Train Staff on Cross-Cultural Communications.
Overall, foreign clients take more time to communicate, more time to build trust and have a higher chance of misunderstandings. So learning to interact successfully most of the time has direct payback. One of the highest ROI actions is to bring in a cross-cultural trainer to work with your staff. There are key differences and the right trainer/coach can zero in on issues staff are facing and give direct advice. This suggestion works well when international leads are growing significantly and also when a company is opening new sales offices abroad.
4. Acknowledge the Cross-Cultural Challenges.
Since many international challenges remain hidden, it is beneficial to bring up questions in department, team and/or individual performance meetings. Has anyone had a challenging interaction with an international contact for the company? What was the incident and how did the individual deal with it? What was the outcome? Is there any possible explanation for what happened?
It is natural to blame others who don’t follow our own business cultural rules. The Thai company executive may feel offended to be talking with a young person in the sales department. We may be frustrated with a Dutchman who we perceive as being rude when he interprets his comments as just being honest and open. Talking about challenges openly leaves room to troubleshoot and find best practice approaches for next time something similar happens.
When an employee stands out as the “top international seller” or often stays late to call the leads from halfway around the world, the extra effort should in some way be acknowledged and rewarded. How this is done needs to fit in with your company culture, of course.
The company’s investments in cultural exposure, training and acknowledging top international interactors – all pay off as you continue to create your global culture. This is a conscience choice to develop values that support a multi-cultural staff. International customers and global business expansion is a natural progression for most companies. International accelerates growth and exposes the company’s staff to new ideas for product and process improvement. While it may be easier to see these benefits from a strategic level, it becomes critical to bring all staff along for the ride.