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A New Perspective on Global Sales Leadership

Over time, and not only driven by COVID-19, organisations have become more comfortable with leadership teams operating across countries and different locations, including virtually.

The two-year international placement has been replaced by the two-hour Zoom call, for many.

I’m writing this from my office in Schaffhausen, Switzerland after returning last month from four years living with my family in greater Tokyo.

My job hasn’t changed. My experience, and my cultural benchmarks and foundations, have.

Working for a global company with fast growth in all continents, and the ability to work remotely across time-zones, means I need to understand how each part of the world works.

So for me, the foreign assignment has, if anything, become even more important.

In this globalised, virtual world it’s easy to think that cultural differences don’t matter so much, but living abroad shows you how powerful (and fascinating) behavioural norms are in a commercial environment.

Living in Japan for the last four years has re-shaped my view of what it takes to be a truly inclusive, responsive global sales leader.

Our CEO Shoji Akiyama-san writes that understanding the contexts in which you operate is vital to nurturing a global company culture.

Especially in the context of our joint venture, he talks about how, as someone born in Japan and originally steeped in the Japanese style of management, he must put himself in the shoes of American colleagues, and vice versa, if we hope to communicate effectively.

I agree, and my personal experience is that this is especially true in sales.

Sales after all is communication. It’s influencing people, understanding what they want, and trying to match their needs.

The best sales people can walk a mile in the buyer’s shoes

Global sales leaders build their success on empathy.

They can understand the buyer’s thoughts, feelings and motivations.

They ask better questions, establish positive and long-lasting relationships with customers and understand how their solution fits the customer’s reality.

And it’s my belief and experience that the best leaders and managers can cultivate similar empathetic environment at work.

By living in different countries, especially for extended periods, I’ve learned to understand the ‘why’, rather than just seeing the what.

In Japan, for example, nemawashi or ‘the meeting, before the meeting, before the meeting’ is a key part of daily business life.

Note the repetition of the phrase ‘before the meeting’. This is deliberate – it means that in Japan, executives work through what’s required, and what they seek to achieve, before the meeting, so that there is no loss of face in the meeting itself. Presentations are prepared and reviewed in smaller groups many times, so that everyone knows what the outcome is going to be. Even the questions are often pre-arranged.

Perhaps it goes back to the Japanese education system where the teacher and sensei are seen as a living source of knowledge and, as such, are to be respectfully obeyed, not challenged.

Whatever the root cause, it stands in stark contrast to the way western companies hold meetings where ideas – often not yet fully formed – are thrown in to stimulate discussion, and executives may even change their opinion halfway through.

Japanese executives can find this approach disturbing and chaotic, while westerners experience the traditional Japanese meeting as lacking in critical debate and robust discussion.

It’s not that one style is better than the other, but they are different manifestations of each country’s, deep-rooted attitudes towards hierarchy and decision making. Erin Meyer explains more about this in her excellent book ‘the Culture Map’ (I’ve read it several times).

By being aware of these norms, standards and traditions, you can adapt your own behaviour to communicate effectively.

You can change your approach to how you set meetings up, how you encourage discussion, and coach sales people better on what to expect in different places.

And you can put in place plans to slowly change the cultural norms, to something new that can embrace all cultures.

Inevitably, living in another country and culture makes this easier, if only because you are now part of that culture.

Seeing through the customer’s eyes

Customer expectations are very different in different countries and regions.

Expectations of service level, quality assurance and speed of response to any issues are incredibly high in Japan for example. That’s why you see so many foreign companies failing there. They underestimate that and may consider the expectations to be unreasonable.

When you sell any product in Japan, not only does it need to be high quality but you need to be able to support it through its full lifetime: from delivery, installation, in-service performance, after sales and replacement.

The Japanese spirit of hospitality – omotenashicentres around detailed service and care. This informs all aspects of the buyer-seller dynamic.

Developing trust and long-term loyal relationships requires commitment to match this expectation for exceptional customer service. If you can’t do that, you’ll lose out to competitors who can.

The Country Mapping Tool compares how two or more different countries build trust, give feedback, make decisions and more. The above visualisation maps Japan with the US.

Throughout my career I’ve lived across Europe, in the Middle East and in North America and Asia. I’ve worked across the entire globe for some of the world’s biggest industrial companies. All had different cultures, local teams and different approaches to working with and managing customers.

Each overseas assignment underlines the crucial importance of suspending judgment, observing and actively listening.

By doing so, you start to detect the root cause of problems and make conscious choices of the most appropriate verbal and non-verbal language to use to start solving them. That builds empathy – a vital ingredient in selling – with different customers.

Sales is a contact sport – understanding, anticipating and influencing companies and individuals.

Especially in international sales, a deep understanding of cultural norms through experience is hugely valuable.

Author: Howard Lang – Head of Global Sales & Marketing, Johnson Controls – Hitachi Air Conditioning

Original post on LinkedIn: