Do global marketers and sales people need cultural fluency or do generic marketing and sales concepts supersede any differences in approach and attitude found in differing countries around the world?
That is a question I am asked a lot during the learning and development programmes we run for a number of large multi-national clients around the world. I suppose the answer might seem obvious – of course people need cultural fluency and knowledge – but it is a question that generates a lot of debate so I thought it would be good to put down a few of my ideas in a post.
So when clients ask me if global marketers and sales people need cultural fluency, my answer is always an unequivocal ‘yes they do’. But they also need help along the way – you can’t expect people just to pick this stuff up by osmosis. Give them the opportunity to be trained in these areas by people who know what they are talking about. Cultural fluency is a ‘need to have’ not a ‘nice to have’.
Since Global Business Culture started delivering cultural awareness training courses to major global corporations about twenty years ago, we have witnessed a proliferation of people coming into the market to offer similar products. This is great as it means clients have more choice in terms of training providers they can work with but at the same time it presents clients with the perennial problem that accompanies choice – who to choose?
I thought it might be helpful to outline what twenty-years of experience in the industry has told me with regards to what a good cultural awareness training course should look like:
This is obviously not an exhaustive list but looking back at the key points it leads me to one conclusion – that the training deliverer needs to have real, in-depth knowledge of not only cultural issues but also a wealth of commercial experience. You can’t talk about this stuff unless you’ve been there and done it. You need to have walked the talk.
The internet and digital marketing bring the world to our door and make access to new markets infinitely easier – or that is the current perceived wisdom. Things might not, however, be that straightforward.
The first, and pretty obvious, caveat to the notion that digital makes global access more easily attainable is that if digital makes it easier for you it also makes it easier for everyone else – including your competition. If it’s cheap and easy for you to attack a new market, logic dictates that the same must apply to everybody and the only possible result of that process is that every single market place around the world becomes ever more competitive and ‘full’. You’ll therefore need something pretty special to stand out from the crowd and that, unfortunately, is not merely a brilliant product which is appropriately priced. If people can’t find you it doesn’t matter how good your product and pricing strategy are – when you’re hidden, you’re hidden.
So if you need to be able to stand out from the crowd in multiple countries what do you need to know? To paraphrase: it’s all about the local culture, stupid! Each market place is different. The stalls are differently constructed, the colours chosen are bright or pastel according to local tastes, the products are arranged in weird and wonderful ways and the sales people use completely different patter.
Do you understand how each market works and how local consumers like to be approached? Probably not if you’ve never done business in that market before – so here are a few things you probably need to consider:
You are culturally biased. Sorry it’s just a fact. I am as well. Everybody is. We are all massively influenced by our own cultural background and those strong influences colour the way in which we view the world. Our cultural background dictates that we are all wearing a pair of cultural spectacles with thick lenses and those spectacles control the way in which we view the world – it gives us all a series of subconscious cultural and commercial preferences and biases. Ditch your cultural spectacles! Be objective in your assessment of other ways of doing things and approaches to business. Without cultural fluency, global marketing becomes homogenous and colourless.
Find out who is successful in your target market – both local and international competitors – and study what they are doing. Look particularly at the local competition and how they address the market and then look at the ways in which the international competitors have attempted to differentiate themselves from local players. What do the different websites look like – and don’t just dismiss the local websites as poor or amateurish because they don’t look and feel like you think they should. (That’s your cultural spectacles talking). There could be a very good local reason why a local website looks the way it does and that reason could be because the local companies really understand what their local customers want.
You only need to look at a few local China or India websites to see how different they look and feel from a more ‘usual’ western site – but often the local companies hosting those ‘amateurish’ sites are massively successful. Maybe you have something to learn from them rather than assuming they have things to learn from you. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with busy (China) or brightly coloured (India) – it’s just a matter of local preference and you need to understand what the local preference is.
Different colours have different significance in different countries. Red is a lucky colour in China but is often used as the colour to alert people to danger in other countries. Semi-clad models are the norm in many western countries but taboo in many Middle Eastern markets.
The humour in your campaign that works well in one market will probably be incomprehensible in another market. (The only form of humour which is universally understood is slapstick and do you really want your brand to be dependent on the use of slapstick?)
If you are serious about penetrating a new market shouldn’t you do the requisite amount of research up-front to give yourself the best chance of success? Sure digital is global but it needs to be localised. It’s just lazy to put up a site and think it’s going to work everywhere or to assume that your product’s USP will be the same in every market.
It sounds obvious but locals probably understand their own environment and customer base better than you do. So why not engage with them. Of course you need to question their assertions and not everything you are told will necessarily be accurate but local insight is vital and you are strongly advised to get good local advice and act on it as early in the process as possible.
Yes, digital is an enabler – but without a global mindset and an infinite amount or curiosity digital also has the danger of being a refuge for the intellectually lazy.
As regulators increasingly extend their global reach whilst at the same time anti-corruption laws become ever more comprehensive, Global Compliance comes face-to-face with culturally differing norms around the world.
The report points out that an over reliance on a belief that centrally driven compliance programmes will be understood and actively implemented in all parts of the globe can produce a dangerous disconnect between the perceived effectiveness of any programme and the actual reality on the ground. The danger is that the process looks comprehensive and watertight at HQ but leaks like a sieve when it lands in different geographies. This can lead to an increase in non-compliance – thereby unwittingly exacerbating the problems.
I think the answer comes in one particular sentence in the Control Risks report which says that ‘you need to really know who you are dealing with at every stage of your value chain, what motivates them, how they behave and how to forge compliant and collaborative working relationships’.
In reality this sentence is saying that you need to have a comprehensive understanding of the cultural drivers and expectations of the people you are interfacing with around the world and how those things will impact on the way in which your compliance programme lands. That’s a tall order and requires a huge degree of global cultural fluency – a degree of cultural fluency that is possibly quite rare in global compliance departments. In my experience some compliance professionals shy away from looking at the cultural nuances of all of this because it simply makes their jobs more difficult. It may indeed make their jobs more difficult but without the requisite amount of global cultural knowledge, their jobs are actually impossible!
If, for example, your cultural background is one where corruption is so endemic it is as much a part of life as buying bread, where it is considered very bad behaviour if you don’t try to manipulate the system for the benefit of your family, friends or tribe and where it is an insult not to lavish extravagant entertainment on a potential client – then being presented a new programme or process from a faraway head office is unlikely to change your perception of what the world looks like.
How do we address the difficulty of trying to shoehorn a benchmark set of compliance principles into a world in which vast swathes of people simply ‘don’t get it’ or are just not interested? We want to be ‘global’ but rail against it when the local comes through strongly. We want people to be fully integrated into the local market place so we can compete effectively but complain when people act as the locals act. We want people to be able to compete against the local competition who do not have to conform to the policies of an alien Head Office which might be counter-cultural in that location.
The answer to this has to be education – both at Head Office and throughout the international network – but this education has to go way, way beyond the typical compliance e-learning programme (which is often seen as a backside covering exercise anyway). The education has to be designed to help people develop a global mindset where all parts of a global organisation can see where the other parts are coming from. Globalisation is a mindset, not a word. Compliance is also a mindset, not a word (and certainly not a set of processes).
As Control Risks put it ‘you need to really know who you are dealing with at every stage of your value chain, what motivates them, how they behave and how to forge compliant and collaborative working relationships’.
This has been a fascinating journey and I’ve learnt an enormous amount along the way. Many of the firms have grown from local powerhouses to global super powers and their progress has been fast and furious. Looking at various Acritas surveys over the past few years, it shows how the legal landscape has changed dramatically with many of the historically stellar names falling away as newer upstarts begin to assert themselves.
One thing, however, that all the major international firms struggle with is trying to make the dream of ‘a seamless service across the jurisdictions’ become a reality. All the firms purport to deliver this seamless service and yet behind the scenes all the firms realise that this aspiration is easier to write in a brochure than it is to achieve in reality. Making global firms ‘work’ cross-jurisdictionally remains a challenge to even the most sophisticated outfit and close attention is required to prevent the undoubted benefits of a global footprint becoming a colossal millstone around the neck.
One of the key essentials for any global firm is to ensure that they work hard to develop a ‘global mindset’ across the entire fee earning base as well as within the support functions. Far too often partners and associates are parochially focused – they often don’t see beyond their practice area let alone across national borders. This is not just my opinion – it’s borne out by the facts. The level of cross-selling across jurisdictions is often very poor in major firms and this remains a real break on the growth and profit levels of those firms.
So from my perspective the 3 key reasons firm’s need to work increasingly hard to develop better levels of global awareness and cultural fluency amongst their employee base are:
As well as working with global law firms, I work with in-house counsel teams and Global General Counsels are getting tired of firms telling them they work seamlessly across the jurisdictions and then not delivering on that promise. One GC from a global corporation recently told me he has moved away from using firms across multiple jurisdictions and gone back to a model of hand-picking firms in specific counties. ‘It’s much more work for us but I owe it to my company to get the best level of service I can. I’ve tried a number of global firms and none of them have delivered on their promise.’
All of the statistics show that the more international offices a client works with, the more likely they are to remain loyal over the long term – and the more offices a client works with the more profitable the client becomes. These facts are well-known and yet high volumes of cross-border, cross-selling remain a distant aspiration for many firms. I have often encountered levels of mistrust across offices which manifests itself as a suspicion over quality levels in other countries. However, this mistrust is often based on a lack of knowledge about ‘how things are done’ in that other jurisdiction and what ‘good’ might look like over there. Working with a large UK firm who merged with a large German firm I heard a lot of comments along the lines of ‘the way they do things over there – it’s all wrong’. What people really meant was that things were different over there and they simply didn’t like it.
Not all clients think the same way and not all clients have the same expectations from lawyers in terms of approach and service. If you are working into a global client base you need to develop high levels of knowledge of different cultural approaches to business around the world – and that is not about how to hand over a business card in Japan. You need to understand what psychology (the result of your own country cultural programming) you are taking into any client engagement, how that differs from the psychology of your overseas counterparty (the result of their country cultural programming) and what the impacts of those differences are for you and your client. Without this knowledge you are fighting with one hand behind your back.
In a modern, ultra-competitive, cut-throat global legal market place, developing high levels of global cultural fluency within a firm is not a ‘nice to have’, it’s a ‘need to have’. At Global Business Culture we have unparalleled experience of working on these issues with global law firms. If you would like to discuss how we can help your firm gain a competitive edge in this area please contact us.
I ran two training sessions yesterday at the London Branch office of a major Japanese investment bank.
In the morning, I worked with a group of senior Japanese expatriates who have been seconded into the London Office – we were looking at the major differences in approach to business between Tokyo and London. This session was designed to help these expatriates integrate more effectively into a UK business environment.
In the afternoon, I spent a few hours with a group of UK employees of the same Japanese investment bank. The objective of second session was to help those UK employees better understand the internal workings of their Japanese parent company and therefore enable them to effectively influence at the head office level.
Both sessions contained a group discussion in which each group was asked to identify what they felt the major difficulties were when working with their colleagues from the different culture. Thus, the British were asked to identify issues they encountered when working with the Japanese and the Japanese expatriates in turn were asked to explore the difficulties they had encountered when working in the London Office.
The output of these group discussions was fascinating. It was almost as if I had influenced them in some way regarding the feedback they should give. However, the feedback was completely spontaneous and merely highlighted the extreme cultural differences that can still be found within a single global organisation in 2018. Some people would like to contest that the cultural differences no longer exist, but I can assure you there are alive and kicking in 2018 even within highly sophisticated, globally experienced financial institutions.
I have put the feedback from each of the two groups into a table below.
|Japanese problems with UK approach||UK problems with Japanese approach|
|Extreme lack of attention to detail||Obsessed with irrelevant detail|
|No preparation for meetings and therefore not possible to get to an answer||Always come to meetings having already decided the answer|
|Make decisions too quickly based on insufficient information||Very slow decision-making process caused through detail obsession|
|Make decisions very quickly but then change the decision just as quickly||Once they have eventually made a decision they are nor prepared to change it|
|Prioritise private life over their working life and the company||Obsessed by work to the detriment of their personal lives|
|Mean ‘no’ when they say ‘no’||Don’t mean ‘yes’ when they say ‘yes’|
|Speak too much in meetings – even when they have nothing of value to add||Don’t speak up in meetings and express their opinions – why do they attend?|
As you can see from this feedback, the challenges each group face is an exact mirror image of each other. What one sees as a problem, the other group sees as a virtue. There are no rights and wrongs in any of these issues merely deeply held convictions around how best to operate in the working environment in order to deliver the best results for the organisation.
I suppose the question that needs to be asked when confronted with such stark differences in viewpoints has got to be, ‘who should adapt to whom?’ This is a question that must be addressed by any international organization who wishes to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their internal operations. Unfortunately, the answer is not obvious or easy.
We spend a great deal of time working with our client base of major global organisations helping them to address these complex questions in a practical and effective manner. If you would like to discuss how we can help your company you work smarter across the barriers of culture, language, geography and technology please contact me at www.globalbusinessculture.com
For more information on this and other global virtual team issues contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org