Breaking Multicultural Barriers to Make the Sale

Chances are, you are marketing across cultures, or you plan to. And that’s smart, considering more than one-third of all Americans today are minorities. By 2038, the Census Bureau estimates more than half of the population will be minorities.


But if you think you can simply conduct multicultural marketing to earn the business of ethnic consumers, think again. The reality is that all of your money will be wasted if minority customers aren’t treated with sensitivity to their culture when they walk into your store or office. Just as marketing must be adjusted to meet the unique needs of diverse customers, so must your sales presentation, store layout, staff, products, services and much more.


Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and Middle Easterners buy over $2 trillion worth of goods and services annually. These consumers can provide additional revenue for companies that are willing to adjust, just a little, to make people from diverse cultures more comfortable in doing business with them.


Just a few of the cultural differences that affect retailers and service providers include: building rapport, negotiations and contracts. For instance, not all people around the world are comfortable being greeted in the same way. As Americans, we assume that everyone wants to be met with a firm handshake. In fact, the most common greeting in the world is the bow, not the handshake, which actually can be offensive to some groups.


Greetings from Around the World
The first step in building rapport with any person, regardless of culture, is to never assume how they want to be greeted. In other words, let them show you how they want to be welcomed by not automatically extending your hand. Instead, hesitate for a moment to see what they do first, and then return the gesture.


People from some cultures are used to hugging and even kissing people on the cheek. If this happens to you, take it as a sign that he or she is comfortable with you and simply do the same. If you turn away as someone is about to kiss your cheek you might get the next one squarely on the lips!


Immigrant men from the Middle East often shake hands with a slight nod and then exchange kisses with other men on both cheeks. Traditional Muslim men may touch the right palm of their hand to their heart as a sign of friendship. Men from this area generally don’t shake hands with women and may not introduce their spouse. It’s also generally not expected that you shake hands with her. Instead, just nod in her direction to show respect and begin your sales presentation.


Respect Personal Space
Personal space varies among cultures. In the U.S., we’re used to shaking hands and then standing about two-and-a-half feet apart. This isn’t always comfortable for some people, like Japanese people, who prefer to stand farther away. In contrast, some cultures prefer to stand more closely together.


Making Eye Contact 
In the U.S., we equate strong, direct eye contact with honesty and respect. On the other hand, many Asians and Native Americans avoid direct eye contact as a sign of respect for you. The solution is simple – look down. You can also use this as an opportunity to show them brochures, pictures, price charts or other material.


Middle Easterners and some Hispanics tend to give very direct and strong eye contact. In fact, there is a saying in the Middle East that the “eyes are the windows to the soul.” People from these groups may make Americans somewhat uncomfortable with their intense gazes. If you expect it, you can get used to it.


Bartering Etiquette
Many new immigrants come from countries such as Asia and Latin America where negotiating is a way of life. Americans typically pay full price for nearly everything except cars and houses. This puts us at an extreme disadvantage when dealing with people who are used to haggling over everything from food to clothes. If you have or expect to have many customers from bargaining countries, consider enrolling in a negotiating class.


Sealing the Deal
Contracts also aren’t the same around the world. In the U.S., we put everything we agree upon in detailed written documents, sign it and the negotiations end. In many other countries, however, signing a contract is just the beginning of the bargaining process. It’s best to know this ahead of time so you can expect it and can negotiate accordingly.


Talking Their Talk
Another way to make people from other countries comfortable is to have someone on staff who can speak their language. Consider hiring some bilingual salespeople, cashiers, receptionists, and others who can help you make the sale.


It’s Not All in the Approach–Consider the Product
Customers from non-western countries consider products and services differently than westerners. They may prefer goods that are customized for their cultures. For instance, homebuilders may need to change the types of models they offer, the amenities available and even orientation of the property on the site. Similarly, stores should carry the products that are familiar to and required by ethnic customers.


Consider cultural impact with packaging as well. For instance, it’s bad luck in the Asian culture to package any product in groups of four. For the same reason, pricing should avoid this number. The number four, when pronounced in Chinese or Japanese, sounds like their respective words for “death.” The number eight, on the other hand, is considered lucky. It sounds like their words for “rich” or “fortune” which is why they often want to buy homes with this number in the address.


If you’re considering multicultural marketing, be sure your sales approach and product also aligns culturally or those multicultural customers won’t buy from you.


Michael Soon Lee, MBA, is a professional speaker, cultural expert and author of several books on selling to multicultural customers including Black Belt Negotiating (AMACOM Books, 2007).

Copyright © 2007 Vistage International. All rights reserved.

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