biz ladiesLife & Business

Biz Ladies: Working Across Cultures

by Stephanie

Today’s Biz Ladies post comes to us from Kate Hash, a digital strategist and lifestyle blogger based in Florence, Italy. She works with clients from all over the world to design, develop and shape their online brands. Over the years she’s learned quite a bit about navigating the cross-cultural business world and is here today to share her top tips. Thank you, Kate, for this insightful post! —Stephanie

Read the full post after the jump…

Just a decade ago international clients and customers were reserved for large businesses and big-time consultants. As technology has made the world smaller, it’s become the norm for even small businesses and solopreneurs to have clients in different times zones — sometimes halfway around the world!

Working with international clients brings a set of cross-cultural challenges that may surprise you. So, whether you are a stationery designer selling to boutiques in Europe, a freelance consultant that just snagged a client in Japan or an artist interested in expanding to South America, I’m here to share my top five tips for cross-cultural biz success.

1. It’s all about communication.

Communication style, that is. It’s important to research how basic business communication and new social interactions are handled in the culture you’ll be working with. I stress the word “culture” because even within individual countries there can be starkly different behaviors toward business. Think I’m crazy? Consider the standard NYC vs LA attitude difference you hear about so often. Will you be working with a culture that wants to jump right into business with very little introduction or are your clients going to want a few phone calls or Skype meetings just to get to know you better first? You don’t want to come off as too brash or too sentimental, depending on your audience.

A little research can help you start the new business relationship on the right foot. Plus, you’ll impress your new or potential clients by having already adjusted to their cultural business norms. If you find yourself working with a culture starkly different from your own, consider asking your client to have an honest conversation about how they would like the communication flow to go. This type of openness in the beginning of the working relationship helps set a tone of respect and understanding that will (hopefully) keep culture-related mishaps from happening during the course of the project.

When I first started working with international clients I was surprised just how differently everyday business functions could be handled. In Italy, for example, most business communication is extremely professional. The equivalent of “Dear Mrs.” and “Cordial Regards,” as well as proper punctuation and grammar, are used even in email. Because my work requires lots of back and forth via email and Basecamp, I often ask my Italian clients if it’s OK to address them informally and/or with quick messages with no introduction. Some prefer this more informal American-style, while others have told me they prefer to keep things formal. Because I ask every time, I am able to deliver the communication style that the client prefers.

2. Clarity is key.

If you’re working with clients whose native language isn’t English or, conversely, you’re working in a language that isn’t your native tongue, it’s important to choose words wisely and be extremely clear. Please, don’t mistake this as advice to talk to someone slow or like they are stupid (I’ve seen this and cringed through entire meetings). Instead, you are presenting your thoughts carefully and with extreme clarity and keeping important business points from being lost in translation.

To help keep things crystal clear, I strongly suggest creating detailed agendas, project timelines and wrap-up documents for each major interaction that takes place. Having agendas before meetings gives the you and the client time to review and prepare for what you will be discussing. Project timelines keep everyone on task by using dates — a universal in every language. Finally, wrap-up documents will help you confirm that you all understood the key points and decisions made during a meeting.

As an anecdote from my business life, it’s not unusual for me to have business meetings where I speak English and the client speaks Italian. We both understand the other language, but feel more comfortable expressing our own thoughts in our native language. After these meetings I provide short, bullet list wrap-ups in both languages to make sure nothing is lost in translation.

3. Deadlines…or just suggestions?

For service and consulting providers, this is a key point of consideration. The truth is, in some cultures people don’t live and die by deadlines. Missing a deadline by a few days or even weeks isn’t considered that big of a deal.

Before taking on a client or beginning a business relationship it’s important to outline, in writing, project deadline expectations. If you are the type of person that needs to stick to deadlines — either because of a personal preference or becauses you also have other clients on the docket — it’s important to make that explicitly clear up front. Conversely, if you are used to a work environment where deadlines are extremely flexible, let your client know.

It took me some time to get used to two seemingly contradictory elements of Italian business life: formality about interactions and behavior, but a very relaxed attitude about turnaround times and deadlines. Now that I’m familiar with that, I can express my preferences to local clients to make sure we all meet one another’s expectations.

4. Same language doesn’t equal total comprehension

This tip is based 100% on my experiences working with UK and Australian clients. There are differences between our English-language cultures, too! This is primarily in communication style — so, don’t skip tip #1 just because you speak the same language.

When it comes to communication, I see same-language issues pop up with mostly with (1) copywriting and (2) feedback delivery. So be sure to discuss these preferences before jumping in to your project.

5. Don’t forget the nuts and bolts

Whose time zone will deadlines be set in? What will expectations be for customer service email turnaround time? What language will be the primary mode of communication? What currency will invoices and bills be paid in? Who will pay customs and shipping costs?

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in how we behave in cross-cultural business interactions that we neglect the nuts and bolts of the business! As with any business transaction — local, national or international — it’s important to put things in writing.

I create a pre-project PDF that I post to our project management system so that we can reference what we’ve agreed upon. If at some point down the road in the project the client forgets, I can professionally ask “This is different than our initial agreement. Is this something we should revisit?” Most times, this brief reminder is all it takes. I do this for all of our clients, but it’s particularly important when new factors such as time zones, currencies, duties and customs are added to the mix; it’s a lot of details to remember!

Take these tips and apply them to your cross-cultural business interactions, but remember: all of the research and preparation in the world can’t replace a client, customer or business partner’s personal preferences. Keep an open dialogue and mind when working across cultures, countries and time zones and you may find some of your most rewarding business experiences yet.

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  • Working in costa Rica for 37 years has taught me a lot about working in a different culture. And even speaking Spanish all those years does not prevent misunderstandings, they just happen, even two American speaking their native language. But the Costa Rican may say it was MY misunderstanding because of the language and I’ve learned not to feel insecure about that. So many differences, it is so worth putting in some research before undertaking a business relationship with a company or person in another culture. well done! thank you!

  • I curate collections of Fair Trade Handbags from five different countries and couldn’t agree with your clear advice more! Thanks for articulating this so well!

  • Some great advice in this article. Thanks. I’m currently dealing with China and there I find I have to really think carefully about every word I put in an email to make sure there is no misunderstanding.

  • I’m based in the UK and currently doing a few bits of work with an American company. Even with two English-speaking countries I’ve found that they use different terminology, so I’ve had to be very up front about this to avoid looking like I have no idea what I’m doing! Having also worked with people in Hong Kong, I know it can take a few attempts to make sure both parties understand when there’s a real language barrier. I find it usually works better once both parties realise that there may be differences in how the other side works, and to make sure that there is good communication at all times to help minimise any problems. And always include photos/pictures/diagrams if you can!

  • It’s shocking how big a canyon subtle differences create. In working with the French, they are very formal, aggressive in meetings, and say no first on principle and then argue to a middle ground – it’s like a rule. For me, seeing clients IN PERSON is what helped me learn most. For the French, I got a lot when I heard the No but realized it wasn’t delivered with a harsh vibe as it certainly would be in the U.S. and was actually an opening for me to engage in repartee toward a Yes. I hadn’t got that over the phone. The hardest for me has been Japan, it’s a big leap for my comparatively friendly easygoing American work style and I dread that divide.