6 keys to establish successful sales teams in foreign cultures

It should feel like a joyous occasion. Your company is so successful that it has decided to expand its reach to international markets, and you have been given the opportunity to set up the new sales division in a foreign country. Good times, right? Yes kind of, but very challenging times as well. Because how do you establish a sales team in a country that you are hardly familiar with?

In this article, we examine some of the keys to achieving that elusive running start in a new market. Truth be told, there are no quick fixes. You need to immerse yourself in a foreign culture to understand how to recruit the right people, and how to help your people succeed once you have recruited them. You cannot pretend that everything is the same because it isn’t.

And that, perhaps, is the ironic first truth of achieving success globally. You need to go local.

6 Keys to establishing successful sales teams in foreign cultures:

1. Find the right people

When you set up a sales division in a foreign country, you have one very basic decision to make in terms of assembling your team: Am I going to recruit locals or expatriate people from within the company? Both hires have their separate strengths and weaknesses, which is one reason why many companies decide on a combination of the two.

But first, let’s go through the pros and cons. Locals, obviously, are local. They know the culture, the language, the market dynamics, the infrastructure, the technological advancement, the competition and the habits of consumers. They know the neighborhood so to speak. What they don’t know is your company. They don’t know the products and don’t know the services. Trivial as it may appear to you, they don’t know your company’s modus operandi

With people from within it’s the complete opposite. They know your company like the back of their hand, but everything else is foreign territory. In other words, they know the product but they don’t know the customer. With locals it’s the other way around.

There is really no reason to limit yourself to only one of the two choices. A properly selected combination might be the best way to go as the locals and expatriates should thrive in tandem. The locals educate the expatriates and vice versa.

Education is a keyword here, one we will get back to. 

2. Search for explorers

Almost regardless of how your new sales division is drawn up, you are going to need a couple of staff members from within the company to go abroad. Either in the capacity of sales managers or as regular vendors. What you need to find are people of the right exploratory mindset.    

Global assignments attract people who want to boost their careers by adding a couple of international stops to their resumes. They understand that having experience from foreign markets might help them down the road, when they want to land that crucial promotion or a new job.

These people might seem fit for your team. They might have the right qualifications.  At least on paper they do. However, you need to be careful with applicants who seem more interested in the opportunities that emerge after having served on your team, as opposed to being interested in actually serving on your team. 

All over the world, you can find expatriated sales managers who bide their time at hotel chains they know from back home, eating the same food they always have while talking to no one but other expatriates. These people are not what you want for your sales team.       

You need explorers. Do you think that sounds pompous, a bit pretentious perhaps? Well, it’s not. You need people who are open-minded, people who are inspired by diversity and who thrive on the adaptability that is needed to succeed in a foreign culture. Local colleagues and local customers alike acknowledge salespeople who are ready to dive into their culture and habits. If you simply push your way of working you set yourself up for failure. 

Sales people earn the all-important credibility, when they embrace the local culture. Stay in local hotels, eat local dishes, take part in local traditions and, demanding as it may sound, learn the language.

These actions are not only practical they send a message of commitment to your new customers. They signify that you plan to stay around for the long haul.

One-on-one relationships are vital to any business, perhaps even more so in emerging markets. Only by learning and embracing local culture, can your sales people achieve the desired results.

3. Education is vital

For a small detour, back to key number one, let’s talk about education. Before you even start to think about your new division racking up huge sales figures, you need to educate your staff.

Expatriates should learn about the foreign country, and it might be a good idea to distinguish between market and culture as they need to educate themselves on both. Market is customer habits, competitors, infrastructure, technological advancements and socio-economic dynamics that affect the sales process. Culture is language, traditions and customs. Don’t be afraid to get creative with the person you are asking for advice. Embassies and trade organizations are the obvious ones, but what about scholars and professors, expatriates who already live in the country, other companies that do business there or travelers who have visited the area on a regular basis? All knowledge is potentially golden.

You need to educate local staffers about your company as well. About your products, services, pitches, history and values. Be thorough as this is the first important step to helping your new employees succeed.  

4. Be aware of cultural differences

It is accepted that different countries have different workplace cultures and each culture, typically, generates a specific type of employee. That employee has been taught to function under particular circumstances that relate to the workplace culture that he or she grew up with. 

In China and India, employees are used to working in groups. They thrive on collaboration, avoid conflict with coworkers and expect decision-making to be based on hierarchy. People are tolerant of long work days, but punctuality is not paramount. In Germany, power springs from positions and authority follows expertise. In Russia, clearly defined roles are preferred, while the Dutch like flexible working hours but detest uncompromising managers. And so on.

It may seem simplistic to classify entire populations. And surely, exceptions will be found, even quite regularly. But the majority you run into feature cultural traits from their background. This shouldn’t keep you from engaging people that stem from different workplace cultures, but you need to understand the cultural background before you can help new employees make the adjustments necessary to suit your operation.

A key task is to understand and map the decision-making process of local customers. What steps are crucial and which persons are involved in the different phases? This might be different from your home turf. Having transparency here helps define your sales approach, the required sales tools and adjusting marketing material. For instance, in some countries it is not smart to use external telemarketing agencies to support lead generation, but in other countries it might be an appropriate tactic. The different steps of the decision-making process and the interlocked sales process gives a basis to define the number of sales people needed to achieve your sales targets as well as monitoring the appropriate activities.

Once again, education is the way forward. Turn to people who know the country, know the environment and understand how customers make their decisions. Visit embassies, professors, expatriates and frequent visitors.  Treat it as an anthropological assignment. 

5. Stay unassuming

It is vital to keep in mind that you are now operating in a different part of the world, where the strategies that you normally subscribe to may not work. “May” is the keyword. You cannot know for sure, which is why you need to stay unassuming.

Before your sales people roll up their sleeves and get to work, you need to put in hours of observing and listening. Take tours with local guides who can show you where people do their shopping. Talk to people. Listen carefully. 

Most importantly: Ask as many questions as possible. Confront your own assumptions. Most of them are a by-product of the many years you have spent in a different culture. Don’t let them mislead you.

At the same time, you shouldn’t take it for granted that the way of the locals is the way for you. The need to stay open-minded goes both ways, and sometimes the way you do things back home might be an improvement over the customs of a foreign market. You cannot know for sure, which is why you need to stay unassuming.    

6. Benefit from your mistakes

Your sales team will fail. Undoubtedly. Each and every day, mistakes will be made. Especially in the beginning when your operation is adapting to a brand-new culture.

The trick is to not ignore the mistakes. And don’t shame them. Mistakes should be emphasized to your entire team as a collective learning experience. In theory, this is always the most viable way to deal with mistakes. But in a foreign market, while in the process of establishing your sales operation, it is absolutely vital that mistakes aren’t going to be wasted or forgotten.

Analyze mistakes and make sure to share insights with your entire team. This way, all mistakes create their highest possible value for your operation.

Part of learning from mistakes is also to enable them in the first place. If you want to prosper over the long run, you need to give your team the freedom necessary to conduct experiments and ‘reinvent’ those strategies that work back home.

Benefits from learned mistakes are evident and should be as equally important as creating small successes. New country, new team and a certain sales-lead-time need a while until the first orders come in. Make sure that milestones are planned, communicated and celebrated to ensure tailwind for your team. A team needs to be aware of its success to generate enough energy and self-confidence for the bumpy nature of this experience. Examples of milestones could be certain number of first visits, offers discussed, first order or first reference case. 

So yes, your sales team will stumble in some steps on this journey. But it is your job to make sure that it succeeds in the long run.  

Action Nuggets

  1. Find the right people
  2. Search for explorers
  3. Education is vital
  4. Beware of cultural differences
  5. Stay unassuming
  6. Benefit from your mistakes
6 keys to establish successful sales teams in foreign cultures