Understand the local business culture

Information about preparing for the business culture in export markets.

Taking an interest in the culture of your customer helps build trust and shows you are serious about a long-term relationship. Not being prepared could lead to a misunderstanding that affects your business relationship.

It is worth finding out if the culture is more 'relationship' or 'transactional'. In the former, your prospective clients will want to take time to get to know you and build the relationship. This is likely in Latin America, Middle East, and Asia. Most of Europe, North America, and Australia are transactional cultures. In these cultures, clients are more likely to want to get to the point of discussing the deal.

Start your research with our exporting country guides or try Kwintessential for country guides that cover business etiquette, customs and culture.

Tips from our trade advisers

  • research whether this is a relationship or transactional culture
  • ensure you are adequately prepared for business meetings and know what to expect
  • ask the customer what their communication preference is, in case it is not face-to-face
  • find out if you should translate or adapt your website and marketing materials for language or cultural reasons
  • find out if you need an interpreter in the meeting

Business etiquette

Spend time researching culture, customs and behaviours including:

  • how people greet each other
  • body language and gestures
  • what people wear in different situations
  • giving and receiving business cards
  • giving and receiving gifts

You should ask advice from contacts who have visited the country before and have personal experience to offer. When meeting people follow their lead in greetings and exchanging business cards.

Business meetings

During an overseas visit you may attend meetings with potential customers, government officials and agents or distributors. The business style, relationships, approach and decision-making in meetings may be very different depending on the country.

Do some research into the following areas of culture, and what to expect in meetings, in your target market:

  • will the meeting format and style be bureaucratic, formal or friendly?
  • how important are business relationships: essential, useful or not critically important?
  • is a high degree of preparation such as research, pre-reads and presentations likely to be expected? Or, is the meeting likely to have a more casual, relaxed format?
  • is it likely that business will be discussed immediately, or will the other person be keen to get to know you first?
  • are you aware of who is the key decision maker? For example, will it be the most senior member, or will it be a democratic group and team decision?

Alternatives to face-to-face meetings

Travelling to overseas meetings can be expensive and time-consuming. If you can’t afford to visit a client in their own country, there are alternative options to consider:

  • arrange to meet them at an international trade show. Trade shows can be cost effective if you arrange face-to-face meetings with several customers
  • use a local agent or distributor. They can meet the customer face-to-face to manage the relationship on your behalf
  • email, phone, text, video and social media are all good ways to keep in touch with a client, although bear in mind that these should not be used as a complete replacement for face-to-face meetings as it will be much more difficult to build rapport

If the business culture of a country values face-to-face meetings to build relationships then there may be no alternative to visiting the country if you want to do business there.

Manage language differences

Knowing a few words and phrases in your client’s language can help build rapport, even if you need an interpreter for more complicated communication.

Translators and interpreters play an important role in international business. They provide a good first impression and ensure that communication is accurate and effective from one language to another. Interpreters should be carefully briefed in advance and be sensitive to subtle language and cultural differences that can affect business negotiations.

Think about how to manage language differences including:

  • whether you need staff with languages skills to make overseas visits
  • appointing local agents of distributors to build customer relationship
  • consider using a technical interpreter in important negotiations
  • communicating in different languages for telephone enquiries
  • enquiries received that require translation and an appropriate reply
  • responding where english is acceptable but not their first language
  • translating all or part of your website into one or more languages
  • translating contract terms and conditions.

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