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Advanced Engineering 2020

NEC, Birmingham(B40 1NT)

04/11/2020 - 05/11/2020

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Getting your export communications right

One of the most important requirements in business is to be able to communicate clearly, and for companies seeking to export this is an issue that should be addressed from the outset. Familiarity with different cultures, languages and business practices is an essential ingredient for success as an exporter, and can greatly improve your competitiveness and chances of success in both existing and future markets.

Even outside the business arena, there are many instances where a lack of understanding can lead to confusion. Any of my friends will know that I enjoy all sorts of different food, so it was in search of a good schweinshaxe while attending the Frankfurt fair as a young exporter when I endured just such an embarrassing moment. A great place to find traditional food in Frankfurt is the Sachsenhausen area, a lovely part of town with old buildings and cider houses serving the delicious apfelwein. I had a couple of colleagues with me and we drove in, parked and made a mental note of the street so that we could find the car later. Having enjoyed my schweinshaxe with sauerkraut and bratkartoffeln, I was hugely embarrassed when I asked a local where the street was we had parked the car in to be told that we had memorised the German word for "One way street". Language can catch you out. It's part of the fun but also a potential problem for the unaware.

I write a regular blog for UK Trade & Investment (https://blog.ukti.gov.uk/author/clive-drinkwater) and was recently very pleased to receive a comment from Rocio Izquierdo who wrote to me entirely in Spanish.  Although I could make a good stab at it, I was determined not to make a similar mistake to my German experience so I put it through Google Translate, a useful and free tool. I admit that I did reply in English but I was able to establish that Rocio had also offered advice on how to cook my turkey (a word I had no idea of in Spanish) at Christmas.

Dealing with cultural issues
Nobody expects a UK exporter to know every language, nor would they expect that all nuances of cultural differences are understood in detail, but you do need to be able to deal with the issues. On cultural matters, I recommend a book published in 1994 by Geert Hofstede, "Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind." It was a study of cultural differences across IBM subsidiaries in 64 countries and identified four (later five) cultural dimensions and scored them for the various countries. It's very readable and will give a good insight for those of you wanting to get more in depth on the subject.

The important thing though is to prepare for the differences and make efforts to take them into account. You would never give a Chinese person a clock as a gift (it signifies impending death). In Japan, you would do well to avoid filling in silences in conversation, something that makes a Brit feel quite uncomfortable. In large parts of Asia understanding the concept of losing face (avoiding it) will reap dividends. Prepare properly and you will have a better chance of success; it will also be a much more enjoyable experience.

Other famous examples of even major firms getting things wrong include Vauxhall who tried to sell their Nova car in Spain - when translated into Spanish it means "doesn't work". Rolls Royce failed to sell many of their Morning Mist models in Germany as it translates to "Morning dung". Probably the best example, however, concerns Coca Cola. When they launched in China (and I'm using Pinyin here) they used the word "Ke-ke-ken-la" not realising this meant  "horse stuffed with wax", but they then had the stroke of genius to rename as "Ko-kou-ko-le" which translates as "happiness in the mouth" and their success story in China has to be seen to be believed.

Reviewing you communications strategy is vital and you will need to address some of the following:
  • Localisation of your product or service through use of appropriate language and cultural aspects
  • What are the most appropriate routes to market, given the differences?
  • How much material needs to be translated?
  • Are there any regulations on data sheets, for example, requiring them to be translated by local law?
  • Can you make better use of your website? Is machine translation an option?
  • Using an interpreter is a skill to be honed. They could do so much more for you than just translate.
  • Culture affects negotiating style, relationship building, different tastes or fashion and often, deep rooted, sometimes religious beliefs. Offend people at your peril.

If you take on board only one thing, it is to be prepared for cultural and language differences. Do not be caught out. The advice in the Victorian travel guide that you need to know only two things in any foreign language - "Do you speak English?" and just in case the answer is no "Then fetch me someone who does" simply won't do.
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