May 12, 2022

The Importance of Language and Culture in Global Sales


Est. Reading: 5 minutes

By Bill Lewis, Business Executive Canada, LMS365

I’ll never forget the first time I made a severe language faux pas; I saw an adorable little boy and went to tell his mother, in Japanese, that her son was very cute. Well, that’s what I thought I said. In fact, my slight mispronunciation led me to instead tell the woman that her son was “so ugly that he scared me.” A language failure on my part, and one I will always remember.

These types of miscommunications can happen at any time, but when working in a different language or with a person from a different culture, these gaffes can have a serious impact on your ability to build healthy relationships and business partnerships. This is where the importance of intercultural competence really comes into play and having these types of cultural skills continuously aids me in the building—and repairing—strong global sales relationships.

What is Intercultural Competence?

In short, intercultural competence refers to a person’s ability to adapt and/or perform effectively in cross-cultural situations. Therefore, an interculturally competent individual has the knowledge and ability to engage with people from another culture clearly and effectively.

When we speak about culture, this doesn’t only represent a nation or country; individuals that are placed within the same national borders can all have their own specific culture and understanding this representation of cultural diversity is an imperative part of gaining intercultural competence.

Being aware of the cultural aspects that are constantly at play has become even more important in our increasingly globalized world, which has further boosted the opportunities to establish business partnerships internationally. Companies are now looking for employees who have intercultural skills and global mindsets as the ability to collaborate with a diverse workforce has become almost mandatory to succeed in many roles.

Intercultural, or cross-cultural, competence is a crucial skill-set in today’s global workplace, where employees are more likely to interact with co-workers, vendors or customers from different cultures and countries, and need to work productively with people who have been shaped by different values, beliefs, and experiences.”

Lorna Collier, ETS

Intercultural Competence in Sales

As I mentioned, there is an increasing diversity of cultures represented in global markets. Now, this is absolutely a positive in terms of opportunity and growth, however, this variety of cultural interactions can create some complexity when it comes to how sales processes are carried out.

This is another reason why having and applying intercultural competence can be so supportive to sales professionals working within these globalized spaces. Employing intercultural competence in sales enables one to:

  • Understand the impact of cultural differences between partners
  • Build trust and relationships with potential clients
  • Effectively interpret cross-cultural communication styles
  • Adapt your sales and negotiation techniques
  • Develop practical strategies for more effective selling across cultures

Being able to comfortably and confidently work with individuals of different cultures gives me and other sales professionals a more productive foundation to build meaningful and successful partnerships.

Culture Is More Important Than a “Persona”

One common misconception I run across in my work is the blending of a customer’s culture with a customer persona. Many sales professionals are familiar with creating personas to help them in identifying the unique pain points and selling opportunities for individuals in different roles or companies. These personas often reduce prospective clients into clean, organized boxes that are easier to develop sales strategies for and build tailored approaches.

Though personas can be very helpful to get a rough outline of an individual’s challenges and needs, this type of reduction should not be applied when looking at an individual’s culture. As Rene Carayol says, “Culture is all about the psychology, actions, and beliefs of a group of people.”

Therefore, its best to avoid labeling individuals using stereotypes or generalities when having intercultural communications. I always recommend learning how a person’s culture supports them in their role and approach, which leads to a much more authentic relationship with increased clarity in communication.

“Language is the foundation of civilization, it is the glue that holds the people together.” 

Arrival, 2016

How I Use Language to Build Connection

One of my favorite parts of learning and utilizing a different language than my native tongue is that it has allowed me to think and connect with others in expansive ways. I began learning French, among a few other languages, at a very young age. For my early childhood years, my family lived in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual environment, and I learned early on that languages came naturally to me. But I quickly realized that speaking someone’s heart language was a way to “see” them, and to connect with them in a way that is easily lost in translation.

In my current position, I work closely with partners in Canada, meaning I lean on my French quite a lot, which allows me to honor the native language of the professionals I speak with regularly. I’ve seen how this not only bridges cultures more seamlessly but also allows me to build better connections with French-speaking individuals as I am showing them that I respect the culture they work within and am making the effort to communicate in a way that works best for all.

Intercultural competency can also be useful in interpreting a client’s body language and unspoken cultural cues. What may be seen as self-assured and direct in one culture may easily be interpreted as presumptive and aggressive in another, and rapport, both personal and professional, can easily be strained through misunderstandings. It is worth the effort to get to know the subtleties and nuances of a culture in order to better understand what is being said, even when it is “not being said.”

Tips to Improve Intercultural Competence

For all the reasons I’ve provided and more, I highly encourage individuals to practice and enhance their intercultural competence, especially if they are working within a global sales or diversity-minded role.

A few places to start are:

  • Self-study: Check out the 6 Dimensions Model of National Culture by Geert Hofstede which gives a great overview of the dimensions that make up culture and how they can be seen across the globe
  • Intercultural training: These can be found either internal or external to your company, but I highly recommend taking time to find one of these courses and gain tangible information about applying a more intercultural lens to your sales and general work
  • Take up a new language: Make language learning a part of routine. It doesn’t have to be time consuming or formal. There are a number of effective mobile apps (Duolingo, Babbel, e.g.) that are free, and you can complete lessons in just minutes per day.

Expanding Sales Opportunities Through Intercultural Competence

The more that our world becomes globalized, the more cultures are constantly bumping up against each other. I believe this gives us a great opportunity to learn from each other and connect in ways that weren’t previously available.

Dedicating time to learning and practicing intercultural competence—and sure, maybe picking up a second language or two—allows professionals to better relate and collaborate with others by showing respectful awareness of their culture. And when it comes to global sales, this competence is something that will surely set you apart from others.

You can see an example of how intercultural competence training can be carried out by checking out this case for LMS365 client, DAZN, who used our learning platform to administer diversity and inclusion training across their global workforce.

To chat more about the benefits and opportunities afforded by applying language and intercultural competence to your sales approach, I welcome you to reach out to me through my LinkedIn page.

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