If you endeavor to sell your company’s products in a global marketplace, my experiences will help you navigate through unspoken cultural messages present in the workplace. I hope to share my perspective on how to “Think Globally and Act Locally.”
Myth No. 1:
Everyone understands English
I have lived in and done business in Japan and the Asia-Pacific region for over two decades. As a person of Indian origin, I found it very easy to fit into Japanese culture. They admire Indian philosophy and the fact that Buddhism originated in India thousands of years ago. Whether they follow a religious lifestyle or not, they respect the fact that most Indians adhere to a religious practice. Talking about the topic of religion becomes an excellent way to break the ice during otherwise tough business meetings. Also respecting elders, especially if the boss is older, is appreciated in the Japanese workplace.
In Japan, business meetings are conducted in English. But, is your understanding of what is being said match with their understanding? When the Japanese customer in a long winded manner says, “Mmmmm, well..it is very difficult for me to convince my management..it is not very clear…how this product benefits us…I need more data and more time.” If you walk out of that meeting thinking that he just needs more data and time and the deal is yours, your guess would be wrong! He was rejecting your product. But, he cannot say “No” to you directly—especially since you are a foreigner. Also, unlike English, Japanese is not a definitive language with clear signals for the positive and the negative. If you face this situation in Japan, you are better off walking away from the deal. Then you should follow up by sending your Japanese colleague or middleman to invite that customer for dinner and assure him that you will come back with more data at a later time. He will remember this gesture forever and will definitely meet with you the next time you go there.
When I was in charge of business development for Japan, I used to be confused about how to react when the “big” boss attended meetings only to doze through them. I soon learnt that if the boss was alert and asked a lot of questions, it meant something was not going right during the negotiations, whereas dozing off meant that everything was proceeding smoothly!
On the other hand, in France, if you don’t get a single question during an entire 45-minute presentation, you might be mentally congratulating yourself thinking —“They agreed with me! They were eating from my palm! They had no questions!” Wrong! If a French professional doesn’t ask probing questions or argue with you, that means they are not interested. And if that happens, you might want to prep your colleague (if you have a French colleague) to ask a question and then see if the attendees pick up the thread and start asking questions. If they still don’t, you thank them and say goodbye!
Myth No, 2:
If I can sell in America, I can sell anywhere in the world
There are some countries where customers will make you go through extra scrutiny, rigorous benchmarking, asking for Proof-of-Concept in their environment to make sure your product will work in their company’s technology ecosystem or IT infrastructure—which may be significantly different from many American companies.
When you are in Germany, make sure all your calculations are noted to the 4th decimal place. Attendees are bound to take out their calculators and challenge you on numbers—unless you already specify assumptions and test conditions. If you waver in front of them, you might as well bid goodbye to your hopes of selling to them.
In the 1950s Ford sent a few cars to test the German market. They soon learnt that wipers were flying off the cars on German highways. Ford engineers were confused by this occurrence, as no such issue was reported here. They soon realized that there were no speed limits on the Auto Bahn in Germany and when the same cars were driven around a racetrack in Detroit, the wipers started flying off when the car speeds exceeded 80 to 90 miles per hour. That’s when wind deflectors for wipers were designed and implemented.
If you are conducting business in India, it is good to remind yourself that the buyer needs to feel that they arrived at the decision independently—and not because the decision was forced. Many American companies follow a strict division of labor with technical, business and legal evaluations being carried out by technologists, business users, and lawyers respectively. In India, you have to make sure that managers belonging to various divisions are brought in to sign off on all aspects. In other words, in the U.S. each individual is considered “master of one,” whereas in India, each individual considers himself or herself, “jack of all trades and master of one!”
Myth No, 3:
Every company wants to be like an American company
In America, taking a risk with a start-up to bring in innovative products, methodologies or technologies is a common business practice. However, in Japan, for example, no one wants to be the first, but no one wants to the third either! The trick is to make sure you get the first customer that is influential enough and to make sure all other customers feel like they are the second customer in line!
For most Asia-Pacific companies, growth is carefully managed because growing a company and hiring employees is done very carefully. Most of those companies hire slowly and almost never fire. A few decades ago, a large Japanese corporation was going through financial trouble, so the management decided to cut the yearly bonus for the workers and the workers went on strike. But their strike was very different. Unlike other countries where strike means no work, these workers started working double—sometimes triple—shifts and production more than doubled. In just two weeks the management came to their knees, begged workers not to produce any more and gave them bonuses by cutting expenses elsewhere.
The point is that local culture and philosophies of different people impact buyer behavior and hence every company is not like an American company nor do they want to be and one must comprehend the differences to find success.
Even while dealing with major markets like Asia, people very often lump a number of countries together. But if you look closer you will realize that in Asia, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and China are completely different when it comes to buyer behavior. Similarly, there is no such thing as a “European” market—there is a French market, German market, Italian market, and so on.
In fact, when traveling the world, the physical spaces within office buildings might have the ambience of a conference room within an American company. But the work culture, the incentives and subtleties that power that workplace might be vastly different.
Just like they say, “Buyer beware!”, I say, “Seller be savvy!” Recognize the differences; understand the diversity and tailor your product offering, product promotion and most importantly your own behavior, to be successful in global markets.
Think globally and act locally!
Nitin Deo is a high-tech industry executive in Silicon Valley with vast international business experience. He is in charge of product management for Aster Analytics Platform at Teradata. His business experience spans over two decades in America, Europe, Pacific Rim and India. He has helped set up sales channels for emerging software products and services. He holds degrees in enineering and management.