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Product Knowledge And Savvy Salesmanship Not Enough When Selling Internationally; Overcoming Cultural Differences Is Essential


By Martin Limbeck, “NO is Short for Next Opportunity: How Top Sales Professionals Think

going globalPerhaps you’re the number one ranked sales professional in your company for selling domestically. Congratulations! However, when the boss says he is going to let you take the lead on the European account, don’t think the same old sales tactics you use to wow your American customers will work in Europe.

They won’t. You must understand the cultural differences when working in a foreign country. If you don’t, you could quite possibly insult your potential customer, or worse, lose the deal before you even give your presentation.

1. Don’t be overly generous or friendly.

One of the biggest yet often overlooked differences between the business cultures is that in America, sales professionals try to be warm, full of generosity and in some cases overly friendly.

That approach doesn’t work in Europe. It’s important to be friendly, but if you’re over the top friendly it will have the opposite effect. Speaking or laughing too loudly, addressing your counterpart on a first-name basis right away or even patting them on the back is often perceived as ‘fake’ or ‘rude’ by Europeans. Don’t be too overwhelming. Show interest in your customer and in their needs. Listen attentively. And focus on the benefits of what you have to offer.

2. Be careful with gifts.

On a similar note, many times in America, the culture dictates that the sales professional shows up with a small gift, perhaps baseball tickets or an item from the company’s catalog. In B2B sales over here, especially when selling to bigger corporations, sales professionals must be aware of compliance rules and regulations. Your small gift could actually cause more headaches for your buyer as he may not be allowed to accept gifts at all or only up to a relatively low value.

3. Dress accordingly.

While Americans seem to abide by casual, business casual or formal dress, most business in Europe is formal.

In Germany, where I’m from, for example, casual or sloppy attire is frowned upon in most sales situations. Germans wear dark colored conservative suits, white or light-colored shirts, matching ties and dark dress shoes and rarely try to make a fashion statement with loud vibrant pairings like their American counterparts.

4. Watch your body language.

American business is much more casual, and depending on the relationship with the client, sales professionals tend to be more laid back.

Europeans again tend to be more strict and formal when it comes to body language. For example, you never put your hands in your pocket in a presentation. Never be the first one to remove your jacket and tie. Europeans are even more formal in their body language when it comes to dining, always holding both their knife and fork throughout dinner, with their wrists resting on the edge of the table and never putting one arm in their lap.

5. Timeliness is a virtue.

It’s amazing to me as I travel the world, how in some regions, sales meetings and everything else never starts on time. In countries such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland, being on time shows you are serious, committed and that the relationship with your buyer is important. We never show up late unless there is an extreme emergency. And being stuck in traffic is not considered an emergency but a very lame excuse; it’s something you need to be prepared for.

The takeaway.

The bottom line is that all sales professionals who sell internationally need to be well prepared and aware of cultural differences.

Not only must you know your product or service and your general target group, but be aware of the local customs, traditions and business climate in the countries in which you are selling. What works in one place could completely backfire in another.


Martin Limbeck

Martin Limbeck is an international sales authority, sought-after keynote speaker, dubbed “The Porsche of Sales” and author of”NO is Short for Next Opportunity: How Top Sales Professionals Think“. He has trained and inspired sales professionals in 16 countries for more than 20 years.



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  1. Indeed, cultural sensitivity is a must. Most best practices DO work in most cultures, I humbly believe. However, they should be deployed with sensitivity and intuition. The star performers combine skills AND intuition.


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