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Management Masterclass

By Christine Hayhurst, Chartered Management Instituteexternal link

Contact us for advice on your problems at work.
• Chartered Management Instituteexternal link

"I am Chinese and work for a global software company. We are expected to communicate in English and sometimes German with clients and customers. That's sometimes a problem, not just because of the language barrier but because of cultural differences as well. Could you give me some advice on how to overcome these difficulties and communicate successfully?"
-- Chunyan, China

HSBC call themselves "The World's Local Bank" for a good reason. They have made a success of understanding their customers' business needs and recognized the importance of cultural differences in achieving results.

Put simply, they spend time getting to know how businesses and customs differ throughout the world and respond with tailored services and products.

This learning process has given them the edge over competitors because they understand their market far better and can provide the appropriate solutions.

You may be able to use part of their strategy to help with your problem. One of the most important points to remember is that in any business, communication is key because people differ even in the same office. It is made far more difficult if you are being asked to work with clients in other countries and speak in a second language.

One of the biggest problems is that you don't know the people you are dealing with and the cultural differences obviously complicate this further. So, in order to understand your customers' needs better, you must first take time to understand properly who they are.

Try to learn something about their culture and their business needs. How do their needs differ from yours? Perhaps you could arrange to visit a client in order to see how their business works and get a feel for the company culture.

Or if this isn't possible, try to have a conversation with a contact about themselves. In a survey of Chartered Management Institute members, one manager claims that only 50 percent of the content is understood in typical meetings conducted in English with non-native speakers.

Another manager said "There is a great risk in believing that by 'speaking the language' one is prepared for business across the globe. Culture and working practices can present a barrier which is more difficult to quantify and overcome".

For example, if you are visiting Kazakhstan you must eat a full plate of food or else risk offending your host. Similarly, work habits and practice, including rewards and recognitions, loyalties, economic history and the relationship between work and leisure, all fall under this umbrella.

If you get to know the person you are dealing with and find out how they work, you might find it easier to speak to them regarding business needs in future.

If you can't already speak the language, it is definitely worth considering learning as this will increase your confidence when talking to them.

Ask your manager if you can buy in resources to make this possible. Although you may not be able to hold a conversation in your client's language immediately, you will feel that progress is being made and your client should be impressed by your desire to learn.

It's also worth considering communicating on the more detailed issues in writing if you have the resources to use a translation service. This way, you can ensure that what you intend to say is properly understood which makes for a more certain working environment. This would also help reduce the pressure you are under to communicate in another language and therefore make you feel happier with the relationship.

It is important to make sure that when you do speak to your clients, you try to make your points as clearly and simply as possible. This doesn't mean you have to limit your conversations but simply adapt them so that you gain what you need at the same time as fulfilling your clients' requirements.

Remember, it will take time to find the right balance and build up a strong relationship with your client but if you can show tolerance and respect, accept differences and learn from your mistakes you will be half-way there.

-- The Chartered Management Instituteexternal link shapes and supports the managers of tomorrow, helping them deliver results in a dynamic world. With 74,000 individual members and 500 corporate members, the Institute helps set and raise standards in management, encouraging development to improve performance.

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