In today’s economy, doing business with other cultures isn’t just an option—it’s almost unavoidable. What can your middle market business do to make the most of the opportunities this situation presents?
Three major trends explain why welcoming and cultivating customers, business partners, and employees from different cultures has become so important:
- International Trade Boom. In the last decade, U.S. commodity imports grew by 80% while exports grew even faster at a rate of 117%. Exports of services increased by 184%. Small and mid-sized businesses have played a significant role in this growth, and opportunities are increasing as international trade barriers come down.
- International Tourism. This is increasing fast and the nationalities of the tourists are changing as well, with some of the biggest increases in tourism spending coming from the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China.
- Non-English Dominant Communities. These are expanding and spreading to different areas of the U.S. 21% of the population speaks a language other than English at home, with the majority of those speaking Spanish.
In other words, whatever your business, cultural differences are likely to become an issue, if they aren’t already. The alternative to ignoring this is to miss out on a range of opportunities. So what do you do?
Increase your cultural intelligence
Everyone understands the problems of communication caused by lack of a common language, but many are unaware of the communication problems that can be caused by culture. That’s because people don’t usually recognize the ways in which their culture affects their own attitudes and expectations. The reality is that different assumptions based on cultural differences can be a major barrier to effective communication, even when you’re all “speaking English.” Here are just a couple of examples:
- Representatives of one U.S. company sabotaged a Japanese deal at the very beginning by presenting a 50-page contract draft at the start of negotiations. In many cultures establishing relationships is very important before doing business with someone. Americans—who tend to believe that all you need is a common business goal to “do a deal”—may not take the time to nurture relationships and, as a recent article in the Huffington Post put it, “pull the plug too soon.”
- An American business manager who took a job with a Korean company tried to treat his employees as equals and ended up with a substantial loss in productivity because his subordinates no longer took him seriously. People from many cultures are more deferential to authority and this clash of cultures can, as an article from The Houston Chronicle put it, “wreak havoc in the workplace,” unless employees and managers are sensitive to and prepared to deal with these factors.
Gaining awareness of the effect of culture on one’s own communication as well as appreciation for the differences between cultures and the sources of those differences are the first steps in increasing your “cultural intelligence.” Cultural competence training can help with this and can teach you to pick up the subtle clues that can signal a problem in communication.
Until recently, large companies that operate internationally have been the major clients for this kind of training. But even these companies often didn’t reach out for assistance until someone in their leadership experienced the problems personally. Smaller middle market firms have only really started to become aware of cross-cultural challenges impacting their bottom line, but interest will most likely increase in view of the trends mentioned earlier.
Globalize your website
For many middle-market businesses, one of the most cost-effective ways of reaching out to international markets and non-English dominant communities is through a multilingual website. After all, if you have a website anyone can find your products and services online—from the single user with a smart phone in India to the multi-billion corporation in Germany or Japan.
If you think English is still the language of the web, you are far behind the times. Growth in internet usage has been much faster in regions outside of North America, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Asia had the largest share of internet users with over 45% of the total. At the same time, internet usage in foreign languages has increased. By 2011, internet usage in English was down to less than 27% and usage in many other languages was growing. Chinese accounted for 24% of total usage. Many people who are searching for your products or services may be searching in another language.
Reaching new customers is not the only thing that a multilingual website can help you with. Locating partners, affiliates, investors, employees, vendors, representatives and suppliers in other countries and local communities are other benefits. More potential partners are available on line than ever before and there are more international and multicultural opportunities; but there is also more competition for attention. A professionally translated multilingual web presence can give your business a competitive advantage
But, in order for your multilingual website to be truly welcoming and efficient at capturing leads and retaining customers, it must take into account cultural differences in the markets you are targeting. Just as important is being prepared to deal with the diverse contacts you encounter as you aim to grow your business internationally and locally. Language is not the only barrier to effectively communicating with these contacts. Cultural intelligence and translation together are the winning combination.
Myriam Siftar is the president of MTM LinguaSoft, a language services partner providing translation, localization and cross-cultural training to overcome language and cultural challenges. The company specializes in the localization of websites and software, including mobile apps. The team at MTM LinguaSoft is service driven, customer-led and leverages technology to address your business’ specific needs.