Export Success and the Cultural Connection

By Don Rutherford
Originally published in Business in Calgary, Vol.8, No.6, June, 1998.

Exporting a product or service can be seen as a grand adventure. You have the opportunity to satisfy the needs of people from different linguistic, ethnic, religious and historical backgrounds. Your product can build a cultural bridge. And though all this is nice and noble, you also want to make money.

Exporters need to address a myriad of hurdles in order to maximize their opportunity for success. Some of these hurdles also exist when operating in the domestic market. Many do not. When going global, knowing the culture you are targeting often makes the difference between early disaster and long-term success.

A nation’s cultural orientation is typically unique. This may mean new ways of making business contacts, new ways of building a business relationship, new ways of negotiating an agreement and new ways of executing that agreement.

Think of the skills necessary to develop a successful domestic business in Canada. We could list many. Good listening skills, trust, adaptability, common sense, independence and rapidly being able to get things done are only a few.

Some of these proficiencies transfer well to the international arena. Our Canadian-learned communication skills are great assets in doing business globally. We typically have a relatively high level of listening competence and are adept at building trusting relationships. Adaptability is another one of our strong suits.

Other valued domestic skills actually cause us to fail when directly applied to the global marketplace. What we call common sense may only make sense in the home culture. Many Canadians believe that it is only common sense to shake hands firmly when greeting someone. But we know that some nations prefer to shake hands loosely, bow, hug or kiss.

Independence can be frowned upon as reckless individualism, in say, Colombia. A quick results orientation here is seen as rash and short sighted in places like France. The French typically insist that detailed plans be carefully and logically laid out before any work is begun.

Imagine a foreign businessman coming to meet with you regarding his exciting new product, which is showing impressive international growth. It’s a chemical that he says will rid your lake of bilharzia, a nasty water borne parasite that infects much of the world’s fresh water.

Being a courteous Calgarian, you reluctantly agree to see the fellow. He proceeds to talk about his personal life, and ask you about your personal life, for the next three hours. When you are just about to throw him out of your office, he presents, with great flourish, a letter from none other than the Premier of Alberta endorsing the product. Your guest now sits smugly, certain that you are business partner. In your mind, the guy is mad.

Where did he go wrong? First, he is promoting a product that is not wanted or needed in this area, as there is no bilharzia in Canada. He is using an inappropriate approach to building a business relationship. Time is money in Canada. Personal chat is often considered a waste of precious minutes. As well, the fellow has misunderstood the value of a political leader’s endorsement. Ralph Klein signature means little in this situation. Whereas President Jiang Zemin’s signature in China would carry weight. These are all cultural misunderstandings. One approach works great in one world region but is greatly offensive in another.

The varying concepts of time are critical for a business traveller to understand. Our Canadian mainstream approach to time is what researchers call single-focussed and linear. One thing happens after another in an orderly fashion. Our work is segmented into little chunks with each fitting into a time box. Appointment at 9, next at 10, next at 11, and so on.

For many of us, that description not only represents a sensible way to view time, but also the only way time can be used in order to operate a profitable business. On this point, we are being proven incorrect daily in areas of Asia and Latin America.

Their approach to time is what researchers call multi-focussed and systematic. For example, you may be having a meeting with a potential business partner in his office in Kota Baharu, Malaysia, when someone else walks in and begins talking to him. You watch as yet another person comes in and now there are two meetings going on at the same time in the same room. Then he takes a call from home, as there is a domestic plumbing issue needing immediate attention.

Does this represent an organizational problem to be overcome? If you have come unprepared, it may look like a disaster. To your colleague, it is likely business as usual. Your counterpart may take pride in the fact that he has his priorities straight. First family. Then close colleagues. You being a distant fourth or fifth. He may also take pride in the fact that he can do more than one thing at once. He can look at the big picture of what’s to be accomplished, and do some jumping back and forth in the meeting and in the business plan.

A second example of the time issue is a Calgary-based firm trying to get a simple agreement from colleagues in China. Something that might take a half a day in Calgary stretches to weeks.

It’s worth noting that Canada is one of the few places where business can be transacted prior to establishing a personal trusting relationship. For most of the world that is an oxymoron. The trusting relationship must come first. And if, grudgingly, in the name of cultural understanding, we accept we must “put in” a few weeks, but make no attempt to further build the relationship, the agreement may take never come to pass. We would be missing the point.

These illustrations are meant to highlight the fact that we cannot carry our home-grown assumptions to the target market and count on them to always be helpful. The best way to get an understanding of the assumptions and the cultural orientation of another people is to study. Receive training prior to departure and continue to study the people and the culture as long as you are in the target country.

A comment sometimes heard is “..we don’t need any training because, Hank, one of our engineers spent some time in Indonesia. He will prep us.” That is like saying you don’t need proper training to fly an airplane as your cousin once flew a plane and he will explain how it is done. It is the difference between one person’s opinion and the experience of 100,000 people distilled by researchers who have figured out, in this case, the cultural patterns.

Gathering often contradictory stories and trying to figure out what is really going on, may take years. Proper intercultural training provides the complete framework of a culture into which you can place the individual experiences of others. If a company does have some experience in a region, and is bringing more people up to speed on that area, the experienced hand can bring his relevant experience into the training program.

The purpose of intercultural training is not to have us behave as they do in the target country, nor to have us always defer to the most polite way of acting. The goal is to provide a level of understanding about what is going on around us, and from that position of power, choose the best next step from the many options. We will be able to act from understanding rather than ignorance. The business traveller is now in a better position to not only avoid many errors, but also to recover and learn from the ones made, more quickly.

With proper preparation under the international business traveller’s belt, it is then important to relax and enjoy the experience. International business after all can be immensely rewarding, professionally and personally.

Don Rutherford is a cross-cultural trainer and consultant. He can be reached at don@culture-connect.com.