Salespeople in the United States take a lot for granted. With a vastly, culturally, and physically connected population of over 320 million people, the American market is one to be reckoned with. Selling and scaling a product is easy, if the market demand is there.
However, there’s a big world outside of the United States. And not coming up with a plan to sell outside of the U.S. puts a relatively low ceiling on the product’s potential; an additional 259 million people live in North America, and there’s over 500 million people in the European Union alone.
Working with technology companies in Europe, I’ve encountered a few factors that add to the complexity of B2B sales internationally. Factors that we don’t really think about inside the borders of the United States. These factors are methods of communication, language, and communicating across cultures.
In the U.S., long-distance calling challenges are a thing of the past. I can pick up my mobile phone in Seattle and call someone in Boston without a problem. The long-distance call is included in my phone plan, as mobile phone service without long-distance calling is unheard of in the U.S. today. And for businesses using desk phones, VoIP services from telecoms in the U.S. have replaced traditional “land lines,” so calling coast-to-coast is simply not an issue.
Also, U.S. telecoms took care of roaming fees quite a while ago, pricing it into your mobile service package, as the FCC required mobile operators to provide automatic roaming back in 2007.
The European Union took 10 years longer to abolish roaming charges for temporary roaming.
Why is roaming even a topic if you’re not a road warrior? Well, it’s a product of a fragmented telecommunications ecosystem in Europe, compared to the United States. To illustrate, there are four major wireless telecoms in the U.S., while Europe has about 100. This means Europe has 25 times the telecoms for a population that’s not even twice the size of the U.S.
Thus, there’s a layer of complexity to making a simple phone call. As an entrepreneur in Europe, you’re wondering: Does my phone plan include calling in the European Union or the European Economic Area? Is the country I’m calling in the E.U.? Is it part of the EEA? If not, how much is this call going to cost me? Things become even more complex once you start doing business with the Middle East and Southeast Asia. (I racked up 20 euros in international calling charges for 11.5 minutes of call time a couple of months ago.)
Solution: Don’t rely solely on outbound calls to develop business internationally. Even in the U.S., outbound calling without a good content marketing strategy will leave salespeople frustrated. Use high-quality, educational content to get prospective clients interested.
Marketing & sales leaders must narrow down their prospects and know them by name. Marketing develops content for the inbound strategy and re-purposes it for direct sales use. Salespeople can use LinkedIn to engage with people at prospective clients and distribute content.
There are 24 official languages in Europe. While the U.S. technically doesn’t have an official national language, English is the de facto national language. Currently, the language of business is English, which helps native English speakers do business internationally. Yet a lot can be “lost in translation.”
For example, if you call a bank in Romania, the receptionist will answer in Romanian. While she is likely to also speak English, English is not her first language –she thinks in Romanian– creating a language barrier. It will be more difficult to get your request across. Frankly, you’ll struggle to navigate the account, as this will be the issue moving up through the company.
As English tends to be a second or third language for many people outside of the U.S., U.K. and Commonwealth nations, it’s important to be mindful that the English may not be perfect. What you say may be translated in the head of the person you’re speaking to, then their thinking must be translated to English before speaking back to you.
Also, Europeans typically study British English, which is quite different than American English. The same goes for English-speaking countries in Africa and Southeast Asia. For example, Americans quickly notice how the former Top Gear hosts name car parts differently, like the hood is a bonnet. More common is the use of “holiday” in British English, rather than “vacation” when someone is taking time off.
Lastly, there is a lot of culture in language. For example, Americans often stuff their conversations with sports jargon. American football references, in particular, will result in blank stares.
Solution: Be direct, clear, and to the point when speaking with clients and prospects. Avoid sports jargon or cultural jargon. Slow your speech! (People from the west coast, like me, tend to talk too fast.) The person you’re talking to might feel too uncomfortable to ask you to slow down.
When listening, be patient. Don’t try to finish your customer’s thought (you shouldn’t be doing that in the first place.) Let your customer think through what they want to say in their native language and then get it across to you.
To be sure you comprehend what the client is saying, repeat what you heard from the client in your words. This helps clients know that they’re understood, or a misunderstanding will arise and be clarified. You’ll also notice that it is challenging for both you and the client to communicate through a language barrier, so repeating what you heard reduces frustration from both parties.
Book meetings! Cold calling can put you and a prospect in a frustrating situation, as you’ll be unexpectedly calling and not speaking their native language. And frankly, cold calling isn’t culturally accepted in many European countries (and getting direct-dial phone numbers is nearly impossible due to regulations.)
Sales must work closely with marketing to reduce friction in the customer journey and sales processto encourage prospects to book meetings with salespeople. Scheduled meetings give you the opportunity for undivided attention from the client, allowing for a clear, concise dialogue with the aforementioned tips in mind. Once you have that meeting booked, you better be prepared.
3. Culture & customs
Dismissing small differences in culture can quickly put you in an awkward situation. I’ve done it and I’ll undoubtedly do it again , because ‘small talk’ is engrained in my definition of being nice or ‘breaking the ice.’ It’s something that I’m accustomed to in the U.S., even if it’s the first time I’m meeting someone.
Asking how someone is doing or what she did during the weekend isn’t uncommon in the U.S. and most western European countries. But getting someone from northern or eastern Europe to open up the first time you meet is asking a lot. Usually, I’ll get an awkward, generic answer, like a quick, “Good, good.” It gets even more awkward because there’s an expectation of reciprocity, putting the client in an uncomfortable position to ask you about your weekend as well.
Small talk is a common example, but there are many more. For example, salespeople in the States are trained to get the client talking. In other words, if the client isn’t talking, it’s bad, so the salesperson fills the space until they hit a trigger to get the client talking (hopefully asking the right questions.) However, pausing and silence is okay in other cultures –people need time to think and process information.
Decision-making is different in different parts of the world . In the U.S., it’s more common for business-people to move quickly and make faster decisions. Europeans are likely to take their time and aren’t keen on being pressured to move at a faster pace. In Southeast Asia, there’s a trend of committee-like decision-making, so knowing and understanding stakeholders is even more important.
As a final example, holidays. People in Europe take their vacations seriously and are more likely to travel while on vacation than Americans. It wouldn’t be smart to expect a response from a European client on vacation. Note that Europeans typically get more vacation time, as four weeks of paid vacation is required by law in the E.U., while the average American is given 15 paid days off, but only takes 12 days. It’s also common for Europeans to take an entire calendar month off for their annual holiday (aka, vacation — see what I did there?)
Solution: Do your due diligence. Before you start selling in a foreign market, research local customs and culture. You can make or break a deal based on how you navigate through cultural differences. Ask people that have done business in a specific market for advice.
Respecting someone’s culture helps you build a relationship with that person. As you build that relationship, you’ll earn the right to bring part of your culture to the relationship, like small talk.
Bring it back home
As you improve your international selling skills, you’ll improve locally. Several of the topics discussed apply to communication and negotiations, regardless of the origins of the clients. We simply toss the fundamentals of communication methods, language, and cultural differences to the wayside because we’re too comfortable in our home environment.
For instance, pausing and giving people time to think –it’s a solid negotiating tactic and shows people that you’re thinking through the conversation, rather than spitting out the first thing to come to mind. And it shows people that you’re mindful and listening.
So take what you learn selling overseas and sharpen your skills at home.