Don’t worry about the fact that your customers abroad speak another language and have a different mentality

Fail in foreign trade 6

You consider the language and mentality of your customers abroad to be a “negligible business factor”. This puts you on the best path to another expensive mistake in foreign business. Professor Peter Anterist, CEO of the global trust company InterGest, describes here a momentous form of corporate short-sightedness.

Mr. Schmidt had always been someone with a strong affinity toward Great Britain, and he was particularly fond of London. Whenever he can, he flies across the Channel to spend a few free days there.

Mr. Schmidt is also an entrepreneur, and he manufactures all types of locks. The cylinder locks and padlocks from Schmidt GmbH are known for their quality and their multifunctional utility.

Back in London one fine day, Mr. Schmidt is in a lock store and realises that his locks would actually be well suited to the British market. He wonders why he never thought of it before, and at that moment he begins to develop a strategy for entering the market.

Back in Remscheid, where locks have already been built with great success for years, Mr. Schmidt calls together his team to announce the new expansion strategy in the United Kingdom. A working group is founded immediately, and the ladies and gentlemen start assigning the various tasks internally – a powerful troop of German specialists is now planning their market entry for the UK…

In one of the subsequent strategy meetings, Mr. Kleinschmidt pipes up and – how could he? – expresses some concern about whether it might be a good idea to talk with a consultant in England in order to adapt the planned marketing and sales materials “to the English taste.” Mr. Schmidt’s response to this suggestion is almost aggressive, and he points out to Mr. Kleinschmidt that he has been travelling to London for years, is practically a native speaker, and knows the English people through and through. When someone mentions that Great Britain includes more than just England, Mr. Schmidt dismisses them immediately, saying, “I know what I’m doing here”.

Mr. Schmidt has always taken things into his own hands. For instance, his company’s website was created by his son-in-law, who “happens to know html” and “doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.” Aside from Mr. Schmidt (and the son-in-law), everyone at the company is convinced that the website is a medium-grade catastrophe, but anyone who mentions this publicly risks a rebuke that will take their breath away.

Now the responsible parties have been assigned for the UK:

  • Mr. Müller took an advanced English course once, he’ll do the texts
  • Mr. Klaus, who likes to put together scrapbooks in his free time, can design the brochure
  • The son-in-law will do the website, of course
  • Mr. Schmidt will oversee the whole thing himself

After a couple of weeks, they all make their way to London. With a German agency and the help of various associations, they have agreed on a few potential sales partners and even identified some possible customers. Back at home, Mr. Kleinschmidt had wondered whether it would be a good idea to look for an English sales representative. But then he kept his mouth shut, because he had no desire to suffer further abuse.

If only someone had listened to Mr. Kleinschmidt.

The results were inevitable. After just a few meetings with potential business partners, the following facts were discovered:

  • “I know English” does not mean you can formulate “bearable” texts for native speakers.
  • “I know html” does not mean you can build a good website.
  • “I enjoy scrapbooking” does not mean you can also design a catalogue – especially if you have no idea what the English consider to be a good catalogue.

“Business is local” – three words that have not lost any of their
accuracy, even if we live in a globalised world with unlimited transparency. Anyone who goes to a foreign country (even in nearby Europe, in the case of Germans) needs to adapt to the language and mentality of the country in order to be seen as a local provider.

Mr. Schmidt did not take that into consideration. He was of the cheery opinion that with his English – which was likely very good – and the help of his star English pupil Mr. Müller, he could translate his catalogue into English. He also believed that he didn’t need any outside help to adapt the catalogue to the tastes of the English customers. Both of these, unfortunately, were serious mistakes, which also led to significant communication problems later on.

Ultimately, of course, it was more expensive than if Mr. Schmidt had done everything right in the first place. The catalogue, which contained a large number of errors, went straight to the rubbish bin; the website was shut down, and the trips to London remained wholly unsuccessful because Mr. Schmidt’s approach was dismissed as completely unprofessional.

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