Authors: Irja Pietilä & Hanna PihlajarinneWhen sales teams leave their familiar cultural context there are no longer shared values, interests, goals, ethical principles, or cultural assumptions between the negotiating parties. Different values, attitudes, interests, behaviors, and languages may require different negotiation styles (Dahl 2006). The negotiation style used effectively in one culture can be ineffective or even inappropriate when dealing with people from another cultural background and actually may result in more harm than gain (Dahl 2006). In some cultures frank and direct communication style may be welcomed and may help to reach a quick agreement, but may not be acceptable in some other cultures. To succeed in selling across cultures, all the sales teams should be aware of cultural differences and understand how to communicate with people from different cultures.
Salespersons may face challenges and frustrations when they realize that selling techniques that work at home are not always as effective overseas A model by Sobel (2013) with nine specific challenges can be used for analyzing the challenges. In international business, these challenges can be seen as even bigger challenges, because cultural differences affect how these should be implemented in practice. In this article, we analyse these nine challenges from the intercultural communication point of view.
Challenge 1: Plan a great meeting
First challenge is about getting prepared for the sales meeting. Despite the criticality of this phase it is hurried and not done properly. When having sales meetings with company representatives, it is essential to know who are going to be participating in the meeting and what are their roles. Several roles can be represented in the meeting: the decision maker, the end user of the product or service that is under discussion etc. Different roles might require different approach for the meeting, so you really need to know who you are going to meet. You should understand the company situation and their priorities to be able to start selling solution that they need.
Hierarchical issues in intercultural sales meetings are even more important. Participants of the meeting may have very different perspectives regarding their status. Many cultures expect that the representatives of the meeting are from the same hierarchical level – if not they may interpret it as an insult.
When planning a meeting, you need to analyze what information you are still missing, define what you want to ask in the meeting and how to ask them. This way you can prepare a good meeting agenda and set up the objectives for the meeting. However, in intercultural contexts the agenda should be very flexible. Sales teams should be aware of different time concepts in the target culture. If the planned schedule for the meeting or the visit is too tight the sales team may feel stressed when the client wants to drink tea, show the city or discuss about your hobbies. The sales team may start to feel frustrated or afraid that they will not have enough time to present their products. The customer seems to be more interested in you than the product.
Challenge 2: Sequence your questions
Customer meetings can have different setups depending on who’s the initiator of the meeting and on the customer type. This should be taken into account when preparing the meeting: what should the targets be and how to discuss or ask things with the customer.
In intercultural situations the salesperson should be very sensitive with the questions. Some cultures prefer straight questions regarding the issues or challenges right from the beginning. You can raise problematic issues and communicate the problem with potential solutions or options. They want to hear about the possible difficulties and ways to overcome them.
Some cultural groups may find it difficult to talk about problems or challenges. Cultures with a more indirect style of communication tend to hesitate to communicate bad news – especially at the beginning of the meeting. Cultures that operate in an environment where hierarchy affects communication styles and protocol find it very difficult to raise the negative issue if the person to be informed is seen as a superior or boss. Some cultures find it also very uncomfortable to say no directly to someone making a request, fearing it might jeopardize the relationship or make them appear non-collaborative.
Challenge 3: Build trust
Mutual trust is an essential aspect of business. Many companies want to develop long‐term relationships with their customers. Without the trust, you are not able to build relationship with a customer. The concept of mutual trust consists of familiarity, commonalities, similarities and openness (Sobel 2014, 13). The depth of the trust that is needed can be dependent for example on your relationship type and your product but it is dependent on the cultures also.
Building trust is crucial in cultural encounters, especially in business. Culture is something that affects highly on how trust is build and communicated. Sometimes a behavior, which is intended to show respect or build trust, can cause the exact opposite reaction. This is most often the result of conflicting or competing values that differ between the cultural orientations of those involved. In some cultures not only the first meeting but possibly many other meetings are needed to build trust. The client wants to know who you are before they start doing business with you.
Challenge 4: Establish your credibility
Sales professionals need credibility to be successful. People prefer to buy from someone they trust. Credibility is not established by telling. It is established by showing professionality and the quality of products and services, emphasizes Sobel (2013). Building credibility takes time. Credibility is the feeling of trust and respect of others and you have to earn it.
If someone’s natural communication style is straight forward and time management very rigid the client may have difficulties to understand and accept the behavior. The intentions behind such an action can be interpreted differently. To preserve your credibility, think carefully about the choices and promises that you make, and never make a promise or commitment that you cannot keep.
Challenge 5 & 6: Understand their issues and develop a need
When selling a product or service for a customer, it should not be just a product or a service that is offered but the benefit that the customer can get from it. It is essential therefore to understand what is important for the customer, what are their problems and challenge (Vieira 2008). When the customer trusts you, it can share the problems openly with you if it is reasonable in their culture.
By understanding the most important issues the customer is having, it is possible to develop a need for your product or service. If the customer shares the same values and expectations of the product you can provide a good solution for them and you are able to sell your products or services. Sometimes expectations of the product can be quite different. Hence, the first discussions with the customer, listening to customer and asking the right questions are very important. It is tempting to rush and proceed with the presentation of the products and services, as it is often done, resulting in an unsuccessful sales.
Challenge 7: Create a next step
At the end of the meeting, you should always create clear summary of the next steps with your customers. Customer should be aware on how you will proceed with the issues. This way you will commit the customer for the next steps, and the customer is more likely waiting for your actions instead of finding another solution.
Challenge 8: Position your proposal to win
Writing offers and proposals requires resources and time. They should be written only, if you are sure the customer is right for you, and you understand the issue and their buying process (Sobel 2013; Vieira 2008). Proposal or offer should not be written immediately, you should overcome the first seven challenges before starting writing.
Members of different cultures may focus on different aspects of an agreement. In some cultures the attention of negotiators may be directed more towards the specific details of the agreement, while other cultures may focus on how promises can be kept.
Challenge 9: Unblock a sale that is stalled
The last challenge is about closing the sale. If all previous challenges are won, this step is easy to complete. If the process is not carried out properly until the end, it is impossible to close the sales. Sobel (2013) describes preconditions for closing the sales. First, there must be a significant problem or opportunity that your product or service can solve. Second, it should be the executive who owns the problem. Third, the rate of improvement or change with your solution needs to be known. And last, the customer needs to think of you as the most trusted alternative for this solution, believing that key stakeholders are aligned to move forward with your solution
Intercultural competence and communication skills are essential when selling across cultures. Salespersons have to understand the key issues and motivators that drive your international clients and be aware of the skills and strategies needed to have in order to sell more effectively.
In order to bridge the gap in cross-cultural sales negotiations one needs to have a deep understanding of the cultural realities of the negotiation partners. Hence, it is important to understand cultural differences to be able to modify the negotiation style accordingly.
Dahl, Ö. 2006. Bridges of Understanding. In Ö. Dahl, I. Jensen & P. Nynäs (Eds.), Bridges of Understanding. Perspectives on Intercultural Communication. Norway: Unipub forlag/Oslo Academic Press.
Sobel, A. 2013. Power questions to win the sale: overcoming nine critical sales challenges. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons.
Vieira, V. 2008. The New Professional Salesman: Meeting Challenges in the 21st Century. SAGE Publications India.
Keywords: Intercultural communication, sales meetings, negotiation
Dr Irja Pietilä has PhD in Journalism and Communication. Her PhD dissertation topic was “Intercultural Adaptation as a Dialogical Learning Process – Motivational Factors among the Short-Term and Long-Term Migrants”. She is currently the Head of Degree Programme in International Business at Tampere University of Applied Sciences.
Dr Hanna Pihlajarinne has versatile experience in international software development business. In her dissertation study, she studied implications of profit- and risk- sharing attributes for collaboration performance in software development business. She is now Lecturer in Degree Program of International Business at TAMK.