Strengthening Global B2B Relationships With Cultural Understanding

Posted on by Beth Negus Viveiros

When marketing internationally, understanding each country's customs, habits and laws is essential. Here's 5 tips to help you increase your business-to-business customer relationships—and sales—on a global level.

1. Business etiquette: Respect matters. Simple gestures can make a big difference.
In Asia, practice presenting a business card to the person you meet, text-side out, with both hands—and never with the left hand alone. Likewise, take the card that is offered to you with both hands, looking at the card and then at the person, acknowledging him or her. It's important to keep the card on the table or desk in front of you during the meeting. Putting a card in your pocket or wallet right away is a sign of disrespect because the card is seen as an extension of the person.

Small talk is nice but not critical in many Western cultures, but it's essential in others. When making small talk, choose topics carefully and avoid politics. For example, in Arab countries, it's okay to ask "How is your family?" but avoid specifically asking about a person's wife or daughter.

Also, it's okay to politely ask, "How would you like to be addressed?" In some countries the surname may be listed on a business card first.

2. Culture: Respecting cultural formalities can be critical.
Titles and forms of address are very important in some cultures. For example, in Japan, you show respect by adding the honorific "san" to the person's name. "Koji-san" is a respectful form of address to Mr. Koji.
In Asia and the Middle East, efforts to engage a particular contact at a customer company may depend on whether you can arrange an introduction from someone who is either higher in the chain of command, or someone whom the desired contact admires. Yet in more egalitarian societies, like Scandinavia, you are better off simply contacting a person directly, because invoking the name of someone else may be seen as unwelcome "name-dropping."


It is universally acceptable to demonstrate a genuine interest in people and show respect. Humor should be used sparingly, however. What's perceived as funny varies wildly between locales and regions, and even between individuals.


3. Group and social hierarchies: Some cultures credit individuals, others focus on the group.
In individualistic cultures like the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Northern Europe, individuals often promote their own reputations and social status. In relationship-oriented cultures, however, colleagues often promote their colleagues and teams to put them into a positive light in front of others. A comment that is perceived as a criticism could reflect poorly on the person making the comment.

4.    Strong business relationships: Relationships take time to build.
If Western companies want to develop strong customer advocates in other parts of the world, they need to invest time to build long-lasting alliances. In some countries, establishing rapport can take several months; in others, it can take several years.


Often, creating partnerships in other countries can help companies cultivate relationships that pay off with strong customer references.


5. Regional privacy laws: When collecting data for customer references, be aware of the privacy requirements in each jurisdiction.


Complying with privacy laws is very important in the gathering of customer evidence, so statutory regulations deserve special attention. For example, actions that are acceptable in the United States, such as scanning trade-show badges, may violate the law in other countries.


Further, be wary of incentivizing customers. In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, employees are forbidden to accept gifts. In other countries, gifts are expected and customary.


Be aware of cultural differences, assume nothing, and take time to find out what is expected within a given culture. That way, you can form the professional relationships needed to create an effective global customer reference program and significantly increase your potential for success.

Deborah Hanamura is director of marketing at Metia.

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