Overcoming language and cultural barriers in overseas trade

The nuances of international business explained

When dealing with overseas firms, it's the small things that count. If you send an invitation for dinner to a Belgian firm, have too much wine while eating with an Italian client, or strongly disagree with the owner of a Chinese firm at a meeting, you could scupper your chances of winning that big deal.

Each country has its own cultural customs, and these will affect local business deals. Firms in Saudi Arabia will often mention the prophet Mohammed during their business deal; Chinese firms place great emphasis on business cards; and Brazilian firms are often late to appointments. Although there are exceptions in all these cases, as cultural rules they generally hold true – so it's important to grasp every cultural nuance of each country you do business with.

National and religious holidays provide a further cultural concern for those looking to sell overseas. It will always be difficult to do business with a firm in Egypt or the UAE during Ramadan; equally, it will be almost impossible to get through to a US client on Thanksgiving, Labor Day or 4th July. Be sure you note all your client's national holidays on your calendar, so you don't waste your time contacting them when they're not there.

And, of course, there's often a language barrier. Some companies expect their suppliers to speak their language; others would prefer to speak English, rather than listen to a supplier struggling to get by in their local tongue. So it's important to know exactly where you and your potential clients stand on the language issue, and how you should approach it.

General rules

Although, as discussed above, every country is different, there are some general rules which will stand you in good stead wherever you choose to do business. These are as follows:

  • Explain everything in full. Try and put as much detail as possible into all correspondence, so your client knows exactly where they stand.
  • Keep things simple. When you're writing something, try to make it as easy to understand as possible, and avoid big words, business jargon and slang at all times.
  • Avoid preconceived ideas. Treat all enquiries you receive seriously, even if the firm appears disorganised at first glance, and make sure you absorb everything you can about your customer's values, traditions and habits.
  • Be prompt. No matter how slowly your client responds to you, always make sure you respond to them as soon as possible. Everyone appreciates quick service, even if some choose not to offer it themselves!
  • Listen. Whenever your client, or potential client, contacts you, listen to what they have to say; it might seem irrational, overly harsh or even nonsensical, but listen to everything they tell you and treat them with the utmost respect.
  • Clarify. If you're not sure of anything, check with the client or ask an advisor – it's crucial that you're sure and certain when you're doing business overseas.

Things to look out for

Make sure you tailor your correspondence according to your country. Some firms will think a standard business letter is over-formal, for example; others will think such a document is the sign of an organised, successful company. Make sure you know what sort of correspondence is expected before you start doing business.

When you're outlining your service or proposal to overseas clients, it's crucial that you're as specific as possible. If potential customers don't know exactly what it is you do, they won't do business with you. If you find it hard to translate your service into a foreign language, hire a professional to help you.

Some enquiries you receive may seem pointless at first glance; a dodgy letterhead, bizarre sentence structure or lack of content information may suggest the enquirer is not worth responding to. But first impressions aren't always right; standards of correspondence vary overseas, and companies which may seem disorganised can often turn into valuable customers.

Where to get help

There are lots of good websites offering cultural advice for international business – worldbusinessculture.com is arguably the best, and UK Trade and Investment can draw on its network of overseas representatives to provide tailored guidance. Kwintessential.co.uk also contains a lengthy section on the customs and etiquette of all the world's major economies.

If you need something translating, there are loads of people that can assist you. Banks and freight forwarders can often translate your letters, while colleges and universities are usually ready to help – and, as mentioned, you can always hire a professional translator if you like.



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