Selling around the world

8 success factors when selling across borders

Even the most experienced sales teams face unknown challenges when they venture into new markets abroad. How people buy in one country is not always going to be how they do it elsewhere. Therefore, sticking to what you normally do isn’t the right way forward when selling across borders.

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Instead you should explore the cultural context first when developing a foreign market to gain valuable insights. Let’s have a closer look how cultural factors come into play and how to strategically adapt selling techniques to match local expectations when selling across borders.

1 – Adjust your communication style when selling across borders

The most decisive factor when talking about cultural differences is the local communication style. In some cultures, an assertive language will be positively associated with being very confident and convincing – definitely a plus for any sales person. However, in many other cultures the same communication style may be perceived as rather aggressive or even rude. Here, it would be much more appropriate to use a indirect, very diplomatic wording. The same applies to your body language during a sales talk. A steady gaze may show openness and interest in the one culture, but aggression in the other one.

Also be aware of classic misunderstandings when selling abroad, for example, the word “yes” or nodding can mean “Yes, I hear you,” in some cultures, while in others it means “Yes, I agree.” If you move on to closing the deal after hearing a “yes”, you may appear much too eager.

So learn as much as you can about the local communication style and how to decode non-verbal cues and you will know how to sell in any country. This is crucial, especially during the question phase of any sales meeting.

2 – Understand your customers’ needs when selling across borders

Another interesting question for sales teams is what motivates their customers. Sales teams are most successful when they clearly understand how their products or services appeal to their customers. Again, look at the cultural context and you know how to sell in any country.

In some countries people find new and exciting products appealing. They are looking for something to stand out or to increase their status and prestige. In other countries, customers may opt for the product that promises continuity and stability. People here might be less open to change and try to avoid taking any risks. They have a high uncertainty avoidance. Leverage this knowledge. Share some success stories with the cautious ones, this might do the trick to sell them something new and different.

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3 – Know the relevance of the relationship-level when selling across borders

In many business cultures around the world, only in trust-based relationships – that are slowly build up with many personal meetings and dinners – things will move forward. In these countries, one simply does not do business with strangers but only with familiar faces. It is all about chemistry and how well you bond with your potential clients when trying to sell.

Any cold calling activities are a formula for failure over here. Instead learning more about the relationship aspects is crucial. You even may need a referral through a mutual contact to get into business. Once the new contact is established, do a lot of small talk to create a positive atmosphere and mutual understanding, but know which level is seen as too personal by your target group. Never try to sell anything before the relationship is solid. Take your time and don’t get impatient.

In some other places, however, enough trust to buy from you may be established purely due to your professional credentials or the good reputation of your company. Here, people may be rather confused if you talk too much about personal interests or your first impressions when travelling their country. Keep it short and to the point, from the first greeting to the product presentation.

4 – Know the local decision-making process when selling across borders

Equally important for sales teams is a deeper understanding of the decision-making-process in a business culture. Learn how decisions get made and who makes them? Is it a group decision or an individual who decides?

There are many cultures around the world, where decision-makers first consult with managers on different hierarchy levels to reach a broad consensus. In some countries the hierarchies are quite flat and almost everyone gets involved. In other places, the consensus is achieved more systematically from one level to the next. In any case, multi-threaded prospecting and finding many proponents within a company might be the key to success for a sales team.

In other cultures, however, there might be only one decision-maker at the top level, but they are usually not sitting at the negotiation table straight away. You will need to win over one representative after another when selling, often not knowing who is influential and who is not. Your biggest mistake could be to overlook a well-connected player with direct access to the top decision-maker.

5 – Choose sales techniques carefully when selling across borders

When a final decision for or against buying involves many different people on several hierarchy levels, time pressure, e.g. by offering a discount when closing the deal by a certain deadline, will most likely not be an effective method in this business culture. Customers will find the offer inappropriate since they need a lot of time to follow the decision-making-procedure. They are not able to decide within a short period of time, if achieving consensus requires time.

Besides, in any relationship-oriented business culture sales pressure techniques will cause a feeling of distrust. Remember, without trust and a solid relationship, business is not possible in these countries.

6 – Know which role is expected when selling across borders

Depending on where you sell, being too nice and accommodating can be the wrong approach as well. Giving in or making concessions too early during a negotiation can be viewed as weakness in cultures where masculinity is a dominant culture standard. Here one is looking for a strong business partner and negotiations serve the purpose to test somebody’s stamina. In this environment it might be worth to opt for any sales technique that creates a feeling of competition or fear of missing out. Your customers want to “win” against a strong opponent

In other cultures, a collaborative approach is the only way to sell. No one here will want to compete and if there isn’t a clear win-win for both sides at the end, no deal will be signed. Give-and-take-approaches will work best.

7 – Use the right information and presentation material when selling across borders

Last but not least, keep an eye on what is expected in each country regarding information and presentation material. In some cultures, facts and figures are most convincing. So support every statement that you make with corresponding data shown in a diagram on a PowerPoint slide. Bring high-quality printed brochures or prepare handouts with additional details.

In other countries, it is all about you as a person when selling. You yourself and your presentation skills are in the centre of attention. Speak freely and entertaining, address your audience on a more emotional level, talk about experiences with your product, and don’t bore them with data and graphs. Be careful with jokes though, they often don’t translate well or simply don’t match your clients’ culturally formed sense of humour.

8 – Doublecheck any cultural specifics when selling across borders

In some cultures, you will need to make sure not to use any unsuitable colours or unlucky numbers in your print or presentation materials. Also doublecheck that everything you use during a sales presentation is in accordance with general cultural standards. For example, in a culture with a high group-orientation, a single woman on her own will be seen as lonely and unhappy. Better show a picture of a group of friends or a large family to create a positive association. Failing to adapt to local values, expectations and taste when using material and images will quickly lose you sales.

Knowing the cultural context will help you enormously when selling your products and services abroad. Invest some time in learning about the culture of your target groups in order to establish their needs, meet their expectations and respond to their buying patterns. Once you know how to make yourself familiar with all decisive factores, you can successfullly sell in any country.

Katrin Koll Prakoonwit

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At a glance

  • Explore the cultural context and find out how to sell across borders.
  • Learn about the local communication style and how to decode non-verbal cues. This is crucial, especially during the question phase of any sales meeting.

  • Sales teams are most successful when they clearly understand how their products or services appeal to their customers. Again, look at the cultural context.

  • Know when and where to act on the relationship level.

  • Equally important is a deeper understanding of the decision-making-process in a business culture. Learn how decisions get made and who makes them?

  • Find out which sales tactics can work in which country.

  • Learn what is expected when doing a presentation or handing out printed material.

  • Establish your target groups’ needs, meet their expectations and respond to their buying patterns.

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