When is the Right Time to Seek Cross Cultural Advice?

This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of Dynamic Export eMagazine.

Export success hinges as much on strategy as it does on building strong cross-border relationships.  Yet, it is often the unknown or misunderstood cultural nuances of interactions in another culture that can unhinge efforts and blow budgets.

A question I often hear being asked of successful exporters is “what is one of the most challenging aspects of getting a product or service into a foreign market?”

The answer, almost exclusively, is - not understanding the market culture well and failing to prioritise building cultural awareness at the time of mapping out the export strategy.

Whilst identifying a key market for your product or service is usually the first step to an export journey, culture is often a last-minute afterthought and in being so, can expose you to expensive mistakes.

Take for example the exporter who kept making market visits and attending (and paying for) expensive and extravagant dinners and gifts, only to determine that the potential partners were no longer serious.  

Fly in/fly out pitches also don’t work in many cultures. Knowing the subtext which may be present in interactions in many cultures is vital. Or the business which had identified a location for their venture in a foreign market, getting close to signing the deal, only to conclude that cultural and value alignment could not be achieved.

Being culturally open and aware is important in the export journey.  Cultural values are not universal but equally, when it comes to cultural values, there is no right or wrong.

There are many other situations when the advice or a cross-cultural consultant would have been well worth the investment. But first - what is a cross-cultural consultant and when is the right time to seek cross-cultural advice?

A cross-cultural consultant is someone who is able to inform on cultural differences that exists in different cultures and explain why and how such differences may impact your business dealings.  

These cultural differences present themselves in the general beliefs, values, traditions, ethics, and protocols of a particular market and, depending on the market, may vary at the national level and regional level.  A cross-cultural consultant is able to provide insights and understanding on broad scenarios such that dealing within a different culture and a specific context can be done effectively and move you closer to your objectives faster.

Cross-cultural consultants are key should you need to foster strong working relationships with foreign business partners as they are able to identify the different communications styles between you and the people from diverse cultural backgrounds and work with you to bridging those communication gaps.  Their awareness of cultural and business protocol means they are able to leverage cultural knowledge and make culturally-sensitive recommendations to influence strong outcomes.

There are a number of opportunities along the export journey when a cross-cultural advisor can be invaluable to your efforts and help you save time and stay on budget. This includes the preliminary stages when a business has identified a commercial opportunity in a target market but is not familiar with the ‘ways’ of the business.

Behaviours and traditions influence concepts such as gender balance in many markets and may impact how to approach such a market rather than if to approach the market at all. When planning in-market visits – an essential part of the export strategy – a cross-cultural advisor can broaden your awareness of what to expect at your chosen destination, what potential logistical challenges you might find that will impact the number of visits you may need to make and other budget considerations. They should also be able to gain insights into your team and provide strategies to leverage your or your team’s communication styles to optimise your competitiveness and assist in your negotiation strategies.

The right cross-cultural advice provides your business with more options and fresh opportunities to develop international business efficiently and effectively in multicultural settings. The cultural awareness gained can potentially save you time, help broaden partnership prospects and impact positively on your export strategy budget. Ultimately, cross-cultural consultants are the bridge between the strategic focus of the business and the necessary and essential interpersonal acumen – that is, relationships or communication between people – required in cross-cultural scenarios. They are valuable ‘cultural ambassadors’ for your business and their insights and knowledge can help exporters optimise their foreign market strategy. International Trade agencies, your local government International Trade and Investment Office, and Import/Export Councils can help exporters establishing a solid framework for an export plan. By adding a cross-cultural advisor to the mix, businesses set for themselves a solid foundation to ensure their export strategy will have the very best chance of success.