Want to succeed in the global marketplace? There’s a world of opportunity out there – but to succeed in selling to an international market, you’ve got to understand the culture.

After I moved to Vancouver, I saws how sales and marketing people who start their careers in North America think. They know they can rely on one of the biggest, richest markets in the world being right around them. But when I was starting my career in South Africa, it was easy to see the necessity of seeking out international markets. South African firms often try to reach out to Europe and other parts of the world with more developed economies that can sustain a large target market – and naturally, those same firms try to get into markets closer to home.

Since then, I’ve helped companies embark on sales campaigns in China, Germany, the UK and beyond. That’s given me an insider’s perspective on what it takes to succeed when dealing with international clients, partners and even foreign governments:

Selling to an international market, the rules can be very different

Running a sales effort in South Africa a few years back, our prospects looked great. We were manufacturing a better-quality product that was head-and-shoulders above any competition, with an excellent reputation for reliability. We were building traction… right up until a new competitor from China showed up with a somewhat different way of doing business.

We discovered that the Chinese company was attempting to pay off the South African government to gain access for their own firm’s goods. They began to flood the market with lesser-quality merchandise that was priced very cheaply – very nearly putting our firm out of business.

On another occasion, I was working with a different client attempting to bring educational consulting services to Chinese clients. We learned quickly that trademark and copyright laws that we rely on in the West don’t even get lip service in China; our ‘partner’ ended up copying and stealing our copyrighted materials outright and using them to set up a competing business.

The point of this isn’t to ‘judge’ the Chinese way of doing business – but to understand that when competing with firms that operate in a different legal environment, due diligence is essential – and you may need to be able to adapt when realities fundamentally change.

Imagine you’re putting together your sales and marketing budget for an upcoming campaign, figuring out what you need to do to penetrate an emerging market in the developing world. In countries where much of the population is focused on survival, this can be a bit more complicated. Your local advisor suggests you allocate an additional $100,000 for… intermediaries? What’s that?

In regions with highly regulated business sectors (or, even more complicated, quasi-regulated sectors), foreign companies looking to break into a market will need to speak to a local government representative. Just setting up a meeting can cost you – and getting the contract may require a bit more, as well.

Culture can be Hyper-Local

To a lesser degree, you’re dealing with these kinds of complications even in developed economies. Building up your company in Johannesburg, South Africa, you might find the business environment as open as a place like Vancouver; you can call up owners of firms with complementary services, or even your competition, and ask questions.

That relatively open business environment is also conducive to cold calling. In contrast, Cape Town has a more insular network of incumbent business interests. They don’t take kindly to new entrants unless you’ve got a connection with someone who can give you access.

The Fine Points of International Negotiation

When dealing with Europeans, North Americans in a sales negotiation may be lulled into complacency by the many similarities of their culture and overall business rules. When differences arise, they can be deal-killers for the unwary.

In North America, we’re not accustomed to losing control of our emotions while in the middle of a deal. While negotiating over a sales deal in Italy, my client was intimidated by the local customer’s habit of emotional outbursts and wounded cries of “impossible!” My client was so taken aback, assuming that the reaction meant he had somehow insulted the client, that he was practically ready to give away the farm.

We went out into the next room for a breather. In the relative calm, we recognized the emotional outburst as a local negotiating tactic – one we weren’t used to, but at least we could counter it. We went back in and calmly addressed the customer’s concerns – “Why exactly is this impossible?” Ultimately, it turned out a minor clause was holding up the deal. When we got past the theatrics, the deal got done.

Dealing with a German company later on, another client had the opposite experience: no emotional outbursts, just a matter-of-fact business discussion. They’ll give you all the paperwork you need, show you a roadmap of what needs to happen and not leave anything to chance.

That negotiation style may seem great at first. No games. No playing around.

But after dealing with German businesses for a while, you realize that this directness is demanding in another way. First of all, they operate in a more bureaucratic, regulated environment: the European Union, which can slow down the process with red tape. As well, if they’ve instructed you about something in the contract that needs to change – and you’ve agreed to it, then you better make that change and live up to it. There’s no fudging. That paperwork you were supposed to get to the Office of Registrants last week? If you missed it, you’re going to look foolish – and they won’t be impressed.

The trick in this case is to document everything, clarify and verify until you’re absolutely certain – and then validate that everything discussed is going to happen.

Selling in different countries requires a keen understanding of the local culture. Learn what you can before you go in – and if you need professional help from a sales consulting expert in Vancouver, we can help.