These days, small businesses are almost as likely to be doing business with a customer in another country as they are with someone around the corner. Thanks to the internet and improved business telecommunications, the ability to sell internationally is expanding opportunities for a growing number of businesses.
However, this opportunity has created a new set of challenges for many business owners. Time zones and language barriers are among the most obvious hurdles. However, differences in cultural etiquette can also be a challenge that many face when working with customers in other countries. Since many international business communications are conducted over the phone, knowing how to effectively bridge the cultural gap is extremely useful. The following are some pointers for talking to customers abroad.
Use the Correct Title
While you may have local customers who don’t mind you referring to them as “dude,” it’s important to address those who are located in other countries in a way that is respectful. Some cultures are more formal than others, and, in some cases, there are specific ways to address others. For example, in Japan, it is polite to refer to someone by their name followed by “san.” This is the equivalent of Mr. or Ms. and is appropriate in almost all business situations. In France, using the titles Monsieur or Madame are polite before you’re on a first name basis. In India, the titles Sir and Madam are appropriate.
Accents can be challenging. You’ll need to listen more carefully and ask for clarification when you’re unclear of what someone is saying. And don’t forget that the person you’re speaking with may also be struggling with your diction and pronunciation, so it’s equally as important to speak slowly and clearly.
When in Doubt, Rephrase
Misunderstandings can happen with someone who is speaking a language that isn’t native to them – especially on a phone call. If someone is unclear about what you’re saying, rephrase it for clarity. The more streamlined your dialog, the better the chance you’ll be understood.
Don’t Talk Down
Talking down to someone is rude in any culture. However, it can happen when there is a language barrier. There’s a fine line between talking clearly and dumbing down speech to the point of being patronizing. A certain amount of patience is required, along with an understanding that you and your customer both have a common goal of communicating effectively.
Be Careful of Slang
Perhaps you’re accustomed to using phrases like “hit the ground running” and “win-win situation.” But customers who aren’t familiar with American business colloquialisms can be confused by what you’re saying and could actually be offended. To ensure that you’re not accidentally saying something inappropriate, stay clear of slang phrases and trendy buzzwords that your international customers may not understand.
Originally published Aug 02, 2010, updated Aug 12, 2020