Exporters face many communication and leadership challenges, many of which are related to intercultural communication. When Stephen Covey wrote ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ (first published in the 1989) he referred to basic principles of effective personal leadership. As an adviser on intercultural communication I think they form an interesting basis for export communications principles. So here is my take on the 7 Habits for exporters:
1. Be proactive
Many companies start to export in reaction to an opportunity or enquiry that appears incidentally or evolves as a result of a personal or linguistic connection with a particular market.
Whatever the initial drive to export, there should be a point early on that leads to strategic planning with a clear vision and realistic goals for what you would like to achieve through exporting in the short, medium and long term. This should include developing an export communications strategy as an integral part of your export plan.
Key questions include:
- What are our communication touch points with international buyers?
- How will our brand be perceived internationally?
- What do we need to do to adapt and localise our marketing and sales process for each market?
Doing effective market research early on will also enable you to direct your resources to areas that are most likely to optimise your profitability. Seek professional advice to back up any hunches you may have about the relative merits of entering new markets. Have a clear vision backed up with sound market research. Planning your marketing and sales strategy for each country you wish to sell to, paying close attention to language and cultural factors, will help you to build the all-important brand credibility in new markets.
2. Begin with the end in mind
Exporting provides new challenges and, in many ways, presents a voyage into the unknown. It presents opportunity to push the boundaries of what is possible while operating in new environments with diverse people, languages and cultures.
There will be many challenges along the way to test your resilience, patience and leadership, but having clear goals will be critical to long term success.
Be clear about why you are exporting and be realistic – what are the risks and threats? What are the opportunities and potential rewards? What will our business look like in the future if we don’t export? And what do you expect to achieve in the long term personally, professionally as well as in terms of business growth?
Your answers to these questions will help you to define your drivers to export, enabling you to see the big picture and overcome any obstacles.
3. Put first things first
Prioritising markets is an important first step in developing your export strategy. There are numerous factors to consider: economic, political, social, cultural, legal and geographical to name but a few.
Culture plays a significant part, with many exporters initially targeting markets that are perceived to be easier to trade with such as those which are linguistically similar e.g. USA and Australia.
But there may be markets that are easier to access and will ultimately be more profitable such as those which are more culturally similar (than perhaps perceived) and logistically easier and cost effective to reach from the UK, such as the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
Perceptions not backed by evidence can be misleading so it’s always best to seek professional support as part of your strategic planning. Exporters who attend UKTI programmes such as Passport to Export focus on this as part of their 2-day strategic planning days and International Trade Advisers and schemes such as Export Market Research Scheme also assist with this process.
4. Think Win/Win
Any negotiation process requires understanding the objectives of all parties involved and how to achieve the best possible outcome for all within the given parameters. When doing business internationally it’s also important to consider differences in negotiation and communication styles according to culture. Managing expectations is an important part of this.
Typically in the UK our negotiation style is to avoid confrontation and use an understated style supported by humour. This works well in some cultures, but can be inefficient in others - the self-deprecating British humour can be perplexing, particularly in cultures where maintaining ‘face’ and not causing embarrassment to the individual or group is important, such as in South East Asian cultures.
Germans and Swiss, on the other hand, focus on logical reasoning and gathering evidence, much more than their British counterparts. Many central and eastern European cultures value eloquence and sentimental approaches – debate and speaking over each other can jar with the understated style of their British counterparts. Adapting communication styles according to culture can help to ease potential tensions and, ultimately, achieve positive outcomes.
5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
This is the most resonant with me of the seven principles as I believe it underpins effective intercultural communication. It is from a place of understanding culture – one’s own culture and that of the markets we which to work in – that we can build effective business relationships.
The key to this is to do your research into culture – developing insight into the historical, geographical, political, economic and religious contexts that influence and form our own culture and that of markets we wish to sell to.
Interpreting non-verbal communication – silence, body language and facial expressions – is part of this mix. Equipped with this knowledge we can start to understand behaviours, preferences, expectations and customs that influence communications styles and enable us to engage in effective negotiations and plan suitable marketing and sales techniques.
Synergy in export communications involves building mutual understanding and respectful communication. Business negotiation, as mentioned earlier, is one key area where this applies and localisation of your marketing communications (websites, social media, packaging, brochures and other media) should be developed based on thorough research into cultural factors.
Developing respectful communication and nurturing relationships is also be critical to success with the amount and style of relationship building depending on cultural expectations.
Some cultures - e.g. UK, Scandinavian countries, Germany, Switzerland, USA - rely on logical information and transactional processes to reach business decisions. Others e.g. China, Japan and many Middle Eastern cultures place more emphasis on human relationships, interpreting behaviours and building trust before business is done.
It is understanding where we are on this spectrum in relation to those we are marketing or selling to that can help us to manage expectations and adapt our communication styles.
7. Sharpen the saw
You will undoubtedly be gaining many new, cultural insights and experiences as an exporter and any investment you make into language and culture will enable you to reap benefits both in business and personal terms. Sharpening your exporting skills and knowledge is an investment worth making and may include engaging in cultural training and briefings, such as those provided by UKTI language and culture advisers and language learning.
It is estimated that 18% of the world’s population speaks English as a second or other language (just 7% speak English as their native language), but English is no easier than other languages to learn to speak well.
As someone who has both language learning and teaching experience I appreciate how challenging it is to learn to speak a language well, but learning a little language - even just a few basic phrases - goes a long way to building credibility by demonstrating that you are investing in your business relationship, can be fun and is certainly very rewarding.
8. Contact UKTI
Yes, there’s actually an 8th habit worth developing! As we’ve explored in the first 7 habits, achieving success requires a market-by-market approach to strategic planning, building new knowledge and skills and developing realistic goals. UKTI provides professional support for every step of your export journey.
For further information about language and culture services, companies in the North West can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Companies in the rest of the UK can find their local UKTI language and culture adviser by contacting your local UKTI office.