– Rukmini Iyer, Director, Exult! Solutions
(Published at Rediff.com)
In many organisations today, it is not just the top brass that has to deal with foreign clients and associates. Executive level employees too have to interact with them, especially in sectors like BPO and IT.
Many of you are are apprehensive about this. Maybe because you are scared of faltering?
“For instance, we could not understand any of their jokes and vice versa. It took quite some time for us to comprehend their sense of humour and respond appropriately,” says IT professional Sandeep Ganediwalla, who has extensively dealt with American clients.
“It also takes some time to get used to the accent. That applies to them as well. Since Indians are amongst the fastest speakers in the world, we need to make a conscious effort to slow down,” he continues.
The content of discussions with foreign clients is routine, quite like the subjects raised while talking to fellow Indian professionals. Intricacies arise due to differences in cultures.
The most common modes of communication with these clients include:
- Face to face communication
- Telephonic conversations
- Conference calls over the telephone
- Video conferencing
Besides regular business etiquette, there are certain points to bear in mind while using these media with international clients/associates.
Cross cultural sensitivity
The most important thing is to be sensitive towards differences in cultures. While we are certainly different from each other, we ought to control the tendency to be subjective and label each other as good or bad. The differences arise out of several reasons ranging from geographic to historic to psychological. Once we accept them unconditionally, communication becomes simpler.
Understand their background
If you have to communicate extensively with a foreign client, take the effort to read up about their country and know common things about their culture. This will avoid gaffes. For example, a Scottish person being referred to as English would certainly not take it well. So if you are dealing with a client in Britain, you would do well to know about all the four countries in the UK. Getting relevant information is not difficult these days, with Internet access being ubiquitous.
Business and social etiquette
Etiquette helps in making a good impression. It does not mean you need to be prim-and-proper all the time. Simple courtesies such as standing up when a lady comes to meet you, shaking hands firmly, holding the door open for ladies/elders in appropriate circumstances, dining etiquette, etc make the client feel comfortable.
Participate in communication
“We somehow tend to shy away from asking questions and seeking clarifications. This leads to confusion later. If client and you are not on the same page, it is important to stop and clarify things before proceeding further. Otherwise, the client assumes that you’ve understood and is irritated when you do not respond appropriately later,” observes Ganediwalla. Understand that communicating with a foreigner is essentially the same as communicating with any other professional. Remove the mental blocks and unwarranted fears related to talking with them, so that you can facilitate a smooth flow of conversations.
Are you wondering what would a client think if you do not know an answer? Or are not sure of the cultural appropriateness of a response? Well, your client is sailing in the same boat! If understanding accents is a problem for you, it is so for your client as well. So a win-win situation would arise only if you shed inhibitions and open doors to a frank dialogue.
Ethics and values
At the end of the day, we are all human being and good values such as punctuality and ethical business practices are universally appreciated. Pradeep Mishra, SAP technology consultant and currently an executive MBA student says, “While Indian professionals are ambitious and look for fast growth, the flip side is that somewhere the lack of commitment to an organisation shows. We want to deal with foreign clients, but only to garner experience and add it to our résumé. If only we could be more committed and really want to add value to our contributions, our clients would be happier. Individual accountability is something we would do well to learn.”
Face to face communication
Be aware of your body language and dressing sense. If you are hosting your clients for a meal, ensure that you know their food preferences and take them to a relevant place. A lot of them may not like spicy Indian food. Do not assume that just because they are foreigners, they would love non-vegetarian food or want to guzzle alcohol.
Avoid talking about political, religious and personal issues. Good topics to initiate conversations could be about their countries, places to visit in India, weather, sports, etc.
Avoid short forms and jargon unless you are sure the client would understand. Do not SHOUT, ie, do not type an entire mail in capital letters. Follow the appropriate forms of salutation, greeting and closing.
Speak slowly. Do not put on a fake accent. It is a good idea to make an agenda before beginning a call. For clarity, you could summarise the conversation in an e-mail later and confirm the points that you have agreed to work upon.
Conference calls over the telephone
If there are more than three people on a con-call, introduce yourself before speaking in the initial stages of the call, till people are familiar with your voice. Put your phone on mute if you have to talk to someone else during the call. The person leading the call should mail an agenda before the call and the minutes of the call after it.
Body language, attire and alertness are important here. Avoid eating/drinking in the middle of a conference and sit upright, to show respect your colleagues/clients.
While this is a more informal mode of contact, if the conversation is related to work, avoid using SMS-language. A little formality has to be induced for a professional approach.
Improve your English
Finally, if you are not confident of communicating in English, start working on it right away, since that is the language most of the world knows.
At the same time, do not expect all your clients to speak fluent English: a lot of Asian and European professionals prefer to deal in their native tongue.
Read as much as possible and listen to English television/radio to improve upon your language. Request your colleagues to talk to you in English and to bstop you when you commit errors, so that you can improve.
A little sensitivity and a humane approach is all it takes to build a great rapport with your foreign client.