I was recently pondering a question as I sat in a café’ drinking a cup of hot tea next to the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam: What’s the best advice for a company that is considering expanding into new language markets?
Amsterdam often brings home this question for me. Walking among the crowds and down any central street in this old capital fills your ears with several languages. The Dutch shop owners seem to effortlessly switch between their own language and a multitude of others.
I find many companies are resistant to any expansion that takes them away from the safety of the home language. Even when there is evidence of a great market or group of markets in Spanish, German or Chinese, having company representatives conducting business in other languages takes away some of the control over day-to-day operations. And that is scary for many company leaders. In its extreme version, there’s even a term for fear of foreign languages: xenoglossophobia. Now that’s a word no kid wants to have on his or her spelling test!
There is so much to say on this subject. By the time I would be done, my tea would be cold and all of the tour boats on the Amsterdam canals would have anchored for the night. But let me hit some of the more important points:
Take Stock of Your Company’s Current Cultural & Linguistic Skills
You may be further along in multi-lingual capabilities than you realize. There may be an Arabic speaker in accounting and a Russian speaker in marketing. Staff members’ past experiences and upbringing can be the source of hidden talent. Now that said, not all language experience is created equal. Someone may be able to speak to his grandmother in German but still not be very helpful initially in business transactions. Also, reading and listening are passive language activities. They tend to be more advanced than active tasks like writing or speaking. Definitely get the details on staff language skills and international work experiences.
When checking internally for language skills, also ask outside key resources like your accounting firm and primary law firm for an inventory of their international capabilities. Going international often shifts a company’s professional resources from local firms to mid-to-large firms with international competencies and offices.
Consider Language when Choosing your Entry Mode
The easiest answer to selling in foreign language markets is to use local representatives. The local rep speaks the local language and understands how to do business in that environment. The rep then converses solely in your language for reporting, materials, support, etc. It’s perfect, right?
If your international markets are not much more than a passing concern, then this approach. Another shortcut method is where you take orders for foreign clients IF they find you through your English-only website and are willing to do business in English only. BUT if your company truly wants to globally dominate your market and maximize its potential, then you’ll need to plan for a more hands-on approach to your international markets that may include setting up sales offices and other operations overseas, developing joint ventures or buying local competitors… and yes – interfacing with other languages and business cultures.
Expand on Core Competencies & Competitive Advantages
Over time, your company should have developed some strong core competencies. It may be a set of product features. It could be your staff’s talent in customer support. It could be fierce defense of company intellectual property. It could be your traffic-driving high-ranking website. Whatever your core competencies are as a company, you should strive to make them consistently strong in all markets and languages where you do business. This way, your company’s competitive advantages including your brand reputation can consistently build worldwide.
Invest in a Company-Wide Global Mindset
I see it in almost every company I have worked for or with… the company leadership understands the global potential of expansion and see the value of incoming international leads. But workers carrying day-to-day operations complain about odd phone numbers and hard-to-pronounce names. It’s awkward and challenging for staff compared to an English-only client base. What’s more, leads aren’t followed up with the same level of diligence and customers with issues are prioritized lower. A attitude of US vs. THEM grows.
The short-term answer to this issue is outward shows of leadership commitment to international markets AND cross-cultural training. There are great trainers in this growing field and I highly recommend having any front-facing staff take the training.
The long-term answer is to strategically hire new staff who already come with a global mindset and hopefully relevant language skills. When enough employees embrace global opportunities, then the company tips toward one more competitive advantage – a truly global workforce.
Back in Amsterdam I enjoy the rest of my tea and get ready for the next international business challenge. Hint: Try the Dutch stroopwafels. They’re delicious!
I hope you enjoyed this article. In addition to writing articles on international business for growing technology and professional services companies, I provide training on international business topics and present at industry and Export Council conferences. I can be reached at [email protected].