New to global sales? 9 tips for sales across cultures

Published on October 10th, 2020

The world may be shrinking in terms of ease of communication but cultural differences are still highly prominent when it comes to sales across cultures techniques. How you navigate the challenges of a local market, understand the behavior of the consumer and interpret the buying psychology of your client will make the difference between success and failure.

Here are 9 pointers for anybody who is new to sales across cultures:

1. Be culturally aware of when you should move from the trust-building phase of a business relationship to your sales pitch. In some cultures, the first few meetings need to focus on the relationship and on establishing a rapport. In Brazil or Saudi Arabia, for example, launching straight into a sales presentation would be a disaster. Endorsement from a trusted mutual acquaintance and an element of getting-to-know-you small talk are all-important.

2. Think about the language in which you will make your sales presentation. Is English appropriate? If you need to hire an interpreter, make sure you use one with technical expertise. Ideally, the interpreter should meet the people to whom you are pitching beforehand to get a feel for their style and speech patterns. Keep jargon and idiom to an absolute minimum and have supporting documentation translated into the client’s language.

3. Stay ahead of issues like legal requirements of the wording on packaging, and branding. Does the product’s brand name have an inappropriate meaning in the client’s native language? Does your advertising campaign translate across cultures and languages?

4. Adapt your sales across cultures technique to the target market. In the USA, a pitch needs to be energetic and punchy. Presentation technique is important. In Britain or Australia, a pushy and heavy sell will be regarded with suspicion. Japanese executives tend to be risk-averse and afraid of failure, so a pitch needs to be reassuring and to focus on quality and reliability.

5. Watch your body language. Are you presenting in a culture where extended eye contact is important, like the USA or countries in western Europe? Are you addressing your speech in a way that acknowledges the most senior person at the table? In countries like Japan and China, hierarchy is important so it is essential to orientate yourself towards the group leader. Watch the client’s body language, too. A nod or an affirmative gesture in Asia might mean ‘I hear you’ rather than ‘I agree’. A head wobble in India may mean ‘I understand’ or ‘I am focused on what you are saying’ but not necessarily ‘yes’.

6. Be extremely careful about the use of titles. There are many cultures where jumping straight to first-name terms is deeply offensive. Germans tend to be formal and use ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ (for all adult women – there is no ‘Ms’ equivalent) and the polite form of address until invited to use the familiar (which may be never). In Asia, the same applies. In the Middle East, do your homework, as status is very important and individuals should be correctly addressed, for example, as ‘Sheikh’ or ‘Sayed’. Whoever you are selling to, it goes without saying that you must pronounce their name correctly.

7. Think about your message and make it appropriate. Cultures that are relatively risk-averse and past-orientated, like those of sub-Saharan Africa, will want to know about the stability of the deal and the potential for long-term relationships and employment for local people. Other cultures, like the USA, may place more emphasis on the bottom line and speed of delivery. If you are selling to Arab cultures, bear in mind that religion and commerce are intertwined and your product and the messages surrounding it should fit in with the values of Islam.

8. Stay ahead of the challenges you are likely to face in the local market. India, for example, has a powerful middle class – but distribution in the country is difficult and new entrants often find strong competition from local products. Try to understand what drives brand loyalty in the market to which you are selling, for example, Germans who generally drive German-built cars, Russians who value the status symbol of an iPhone.

9. Know when to close the sale. Many cultures globally are relationship-based and building trust is essential before moving in to conclude the sale. Pushing Arab cultures, or those in much of Asia or Latin America for a quick decision puts you in a position of weakness. Read your audience correctly and bide your time.


Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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