Not everyone has a degree in international business, but you might sometimes feel like you need one. Whether you’re working with colleagues or clients from another culture — on your turf or theirs — there’s really only one thing you need to make the relationship successful: a respectful curiosity.
To build successful cross-cultural relationships, you have to invest the time and energy it takes to learn and understand where nuances exist. While this type of training might be automatic at a large global company, if you’re at a small or mid-sized business, it’s often up to you to teach yourself.
But it can certainly be worth the effort — for both sides. For example, the U.S. is a key market for one of my clients, a large medical equipment manufacturer located in Germany. Our relationship is a win-win because the client gains access to our agency, which knows the U.S. market well, and we get to work with an industry leader.
Success in business often means accommodating people from all different backgrounds and philosophies to find common ground. Whether I’m working with my colleagues in the United Kingdom or clients in Munich, Germany, I’ve found that there are simple steps anyone can take to ensure strong, professional relationships with people from all cultures.
- Step away from your norms. Just because you don’t ordinarily do something a certain way doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make exceptions. For eco-friendly reasons, my company doesn’t hand out business cards. That probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? If you’re working with a Japanese client, that answer is wrong. In this case, we would make it a priority to have some business cards printed in order to participate in the formal tradition of the business card ceremony that’s essential to Japanese culture.
- Mind the small details.The little things add up, and there are countless small ways you can show your respect and sensitivity when working across cultures. For example, you should always be conscious of different time zones. My Google calendar allows me to display my schedule in different time zones, which helps me be more mindful when scheduling appointments with global clients. When I set up calls or meetings, I convert my calendar to the time zone of the people I’m working with to make sure they’re never inconvenienced.
- Learn and practice. Take every opportunity to learn about other cultures. Attend conferences in key countries that you’re working with — these can be great places to interact with many people from different cultures. Conferences also offer low-pressure environments where you can feel free to ask questions without worrying about damaging existing business relationships. Plus, you get the added benefit of learning about business topics that concern clients in that area.
- Share cultural experiences. People are generally proud of their heritage and happy to share it with you, and that can lead to really interesting conversations. When I go to Munich to visit one of my clients, he takes the time to introduce me to great restaurants and tourist areas. In fact, we each respectfully cheered for our homelands over beer during the World Cup. When he’s in the U.S., I return the favor and take him out for football games and other American treats.
Ultimately, a positive cross-cultural client relationship should look very similar to any other successful business relationship, with one key difference: The person from the other culture should know that you respect and are curious about understanding him. Ideally, he will feel the same about you, and sharing your cultural backgrounds with each other will be an enjoyable experience that creates an even stronger bond.
Written By: Peter Figueredo, Partner, Global Head of Client Services and Lead Client Partner at House of Kaizen