Photo of a large group of office professionals at a meeting

By John Bingham

These days, many companies find themselves reaching across geographic boundaries to expand their business. Not only can this diversify your stream of revenue, it also can teach you valuable lessons and broaden your perspective on other cultures.

Let’s say your company is now at that crossroad. You’ve been in talks with a client from another culture for months. You don’t know much about their culture, and you’ve never met the client in person, but everything they see and hear from you sounds perfect — you’re exactly what they need. They decide to fly to the United States to meet you in person — this is your opportunity to seal the deal and get your first international client.

Illustration of shaking handsBut you fail. Why? Talks over dinner went great, didn’t they? You reiterated everything they wanted to hear — but as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. When you opened your meeting, you neglected to toast the most senior person in the room, and in their culture, hierarchy is very important. The client then had a realization: your lack of knowledge about their culture indicated that you came unprepared. Your chance to make a connection was lost. What could you have done differently to keep them?

Whether your new client is domestic or international, failing to connect with their culture can not only put you in uncomfortable situations, it can also hinder your company’s ability to grow. Learning to be sensitive to and understanding of another culture is increasingly important in a globalized society. Culture doesn’t just mean nationality, either: it could be religion, socioeconomic status, or race. So, how do you mitigate the differences? You can start by doing something fairly obvious, but often done poorly or not at all: research.

One thing people often forget to do when doing research is to use the network they’ve already established. Chances are you’ve met someone who has knowledge regarding your client’s culture; think hard about who you may know who has either lived in your client’s country, has done business with someone of that culture, or has studied it and reach out to them for advice. Use the internet’s vast resources to your advantage. A quick search online will yield seemingly endless results regarding your client’s culture, but be sure to research business conduct, as there may be a completely separate set of rules (for example, in Spain, a peck on the cheek may be appropriate in a casual setting, but in a business setting it is not). Additionally, do not feel pressured to adhere to every single rule you see online. With how fast the world is moving, some things may even be outdated (and this is the Internet we’re talking about, so you should approach everything with a critical eye). It is wise to cross-check several articles to see which rules are the most current.

While you may go in unsure even after doing your research, your client will appreciate the effort you put in when you demonstrate your knowledge. After all, being nervous and entering the meeting informed is far better than going in with confidence, but offending your potential business partner.