I travel the world consulting on business pitches. While business is fundamentally conducted in the same way no matter what time zone I’m in—all of my clients have a need and all want a solution—customs can vary in subtle ways from culture to culture. Over the years, I’ve learned to pay close attention to those nuances. For me, pitching globally comes down to knowing my audience, respecting its uniqueness, and being careful not to make assumptions. If I do all three, the dividends follow. Here are some lessons I’ve learned about how to woo the natives when you pitch on their turf.
Bone up before you go
Some customs are almost ceremonial, so learn which ones matter the most before you head out. I went to Beijing on business for the first time recently. Before I left, I called up my mate in Australia who does business in China so often he’s practically a guru on the subject and asked him for tips on how to gain an edge and avoid making gaffes.
It’s the little things that count, and my friend enlightened me on something important. North Americans are casual about exchanging business cards, even tossing them to clients across the table. But do that in China, he told me, and a potential client is likely to recoil in in horror. In China, people use both hands to offer their business cards and almost bow when they present them. It’s their way of communicating they consider it an honour to do business with you.
When in Rome
Make an effort to connect with people on their own terms. People love it when you do. I don’t speak French, but whenever I’m in Montreal, I always say “bonjour” to clients and cabbies. They know that’s pretty much where my command of their language ends, but they appreciate my willingness to enter their world instead of expecting them to enter mine. I once worked with an American in Toronto who’d only been living in Canada for a few months but had taken the time to learn the names of all of the provinces and territories. I’d been living there for four years and didn’t have that information. I was truly impressed.
Avoid the obvious
While it’s important to demonstrate your knowledge of the client’s unique differences, don’t do it in a contrived way or you’ll put them off. If someone tries to build rapport with me by saying, “Hey Hamish, let’s put another shrimp on the barbie” — or worse, “a dingo ate my baby”— I may smile politely, but what I’m thinking is basically unprintable. Firstly, we don’t say “shrimp” in Australia. We say “prawn”. More importantly, though, it’s tiresome to be reduced to a cultural cliché. If you want to build rapport, show a little imagination.
Don’t try this away from home
Be careful attempting to translate slang or idioms into other languages. Often they don’t carry over literally. I once pitched a German client and wanted to convey the idea that if they took my advice, achieving their goal would be a piece of cake. Instead of saying “a piece of cake” I made a well-intentioned but misguided effort to connect by saying “ein stück kuchen”. They didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.
When in doubt, defer
I always adjust my pitching style depending on the locale. New Yorkers like and respect you when you give it to them straight. A quiet humble approach would never work there. However, if I’m in a foreign culture and unsure about how to conduct a meeting, I’ll always begin by deferring to my hosts. I’ll say, “Thank you very much for the opportunity to pitch you today. This is my first meeting in your country and I’m honoured to be here. I’m not quite sure how to conduct this meeting, but I want to run it in a way that’s respectful of your customs, so before I proceed, please me know if there’s anything I should know.” Respect for others knows no borders. In the end, people are people.