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12 July 2021
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Business Without Borders: How to Properly Communicate with International Clients

What makes communication with international clients different, and how can you adapt in order to build value-based relationships with them?

Entering the international market is considered a great success for Russian companies. In order to take and maintain a position in a foreign market, you will have to take into account the differences between your and their cultural characteristics, emotionality, context and body language, as well as other factors that you have not had to deal with within your country. Therefore, the main question to ask before you start working with a client from another culture is whether you are ready to understand and accept this culture and adapt your communication accordingly.
The second question is whether you are ready to invest time and energy into developing business relationships and bringing them to a new level where you and the client share the same values and base your communication on those values.

One of the most important factors in successfully building business relationships with international clients is your ability to adapt to their cultural differences and way of thinking. It is also important to invest time and energy into building business relationships based on values that are shared and acted on by both parties. Such relationships produce amazing results in business development.

So, what is the right way of conducting business communication with international partners? Let us explain this based on the example of working with clients from Western Europe.

The first thing to consider is your communication style. For Russia, the more suitable style of communication is straightforward and rather direct: it is characterised by point-blank questions, cutting to the chase and sometimes even applying pressure. Conversely, foreigners prefer a more roundabout approach, showing flexibility, tolerance and extreme politeness. Pressuring your client is unacceptable and drives people away.

Managing specialists who work with international clients is also different from managing people who work with Russian businesses. After all, specialists selected to work with international clients have the appropriate mentality as well.
How to Build Communication With International Clients
1. One of the main tasks of an international client manager is to build and maintain personal, trust-based business relationships with them. What does it mean?

Example: a client has a need for a service or product. They immediately think of you and say: ’I should approach Gulnaz. She has never let me down!’. Thus, building business relationships and making yourself and your company as a whole more recognisable allows you to develop your business and expand the portfolio of services it provides.

2. Over time, business relationships either transform or remain at the same level, which is not always ideal. Why?

There are several levels of business relationships:

The first level is purely transactional, quid pro quo. You and your client have a contract that spells out all the terms and conditions, and you follow it. In case of misunderstandings, you resolve them by referring to the clauses of the contract. This is what a normal basic level is. It is important because it protects the interests of your business.

The second level is personalised. Business relationships of this kind have a hint of informality. It is normally inappropriate to discuss personal matters in a business environment; however, at a certain point, these boundaries become blurred. You get used to an individual, and personal matters involuntarily find their way into your communication.

For example: ’I’m sorry I missed the call, I was visiting a doctor’. Or: ’I won’t be able to hold next week’s meeting. I’ll be on vacation for my daughter’s wedding’. Or: ’You’re great, let’s have a beer on Zoom this Friday and talk about politics’. These are real examples from my experience.

In cases like these, it is essential that you react:
’Is everything alright?’. Or: ’I hope everything is alright’.
’Wow, that’s great, congratulations!’ Alternatively, you can further pursue the subject: ’How do you host a wedding in a pandemic? Are there any difficulties with gathering the guests?’.
’I’m not into politics, such discussions can lead to an argument. :) But I’ll be glad to talk about what’s happening in the world with you!’

Why is it so important to react? When an individual talks about something personal, they become vulnerable. Failure to react is a huge mistake, as the client will consider you indifferent if they receive a cold, calculated reply.

For example, they offer to have a Zoom call ’over a glass of sparkling wine’ on Friday night and receive the following reply: ’Have you looked at the calculation I sent you yet?’. This is also a real example.
Some people stop at the initial transactional stage and are unable to conduct a dialogue at a different level. There is nothing wrong with it, such people are important to have in projects. But it is difficult for them to provide your company’s relationship with an international client with a truly solid foundation and successfully develop your business.

The third level can overlap with the personalised one: this is when your communication with a person becomes based on your values. This is absolute mastery of business communication. Basically, this level is where you become friends with your client. You see what values they uphold and how they are expressed through actions and in communication. You are completely on the same page.

Let us explain this using real examples:
1. I emailed an international colleague: ’Please have a look at our specialist’s CV. He is waiting for your decision. He’s not a resource to me, he’s a person, so I’m asking you to reply. I care about my people’. I knew that he also thinks this way and will respond to this form of motivation. I did not write: ’I’m reminding you to please have a look at the CV. I sent it to you last week’. In this case, the value is respect for a person.

2. ’I trust you. You’ve never let me down. I’ll start providing the service to you free of charge.’ Here the value is trust.

3. An international client refuses to sign a work completion certificate and does not understand what it is, even though he had signed it before. In a situation like this, you can say: ’I’m sorry. This is my fault, I must not have been transparent enough with you if you have to ask such questions. Let me call you and describe the requirements of the Russian law to the document management process’. You should not tell the client that they have already signed the document before, refer them to the clause in the contract or try to assert yourself. You should explain everything nicely. In response, the client immediately signed the document. I did not have to call them and explain the requirements of the law. In this case, the values are business transparency and trust.

It is completely normal if your values do not align with someone else’s. Sometimes, an employee leading one client may move on to another with whose stakeholders they will be able to reach better understanding and have more shared values. This is a normal practice as well.
Similar transformations are also taking place in business relationships with Russian clients, although not as clearly as with international ones.
A Few Words About Speech
It is important how you react to everything your international client says when you meet them in person or make a phone call, even if it seems that no response is required. Russian and foreign specialists react to the speech of their interlocutors very differently. When communicating with foreigners, you are expected to react to almost every statement with one of the following phrases: ’It makes sense’, ’This really helps, thank you’, ’It is my pleasure’, ’No problem’, ’I appreciate your time’, ’I am sorry’.
In this context, Russians are not particularly keen on sharing their emotions with others: we are not used to giving passionate responses. For this reason, a common occurrence during phone calls are moments of awkward silence when one side is expecting a reaction, while the other has no intention of giving it.

Our speech differs in tone and intonation. People from other countries tend to end their greetings in a high-pitched tone, with all sounds rising. Russians usually speak with a falling intonation: ’Kak ty?’, ’Privet!’, ’Poka’. Our speech sounds rude and unfriendly to international partners. Their phrases ’Hi!’, ’Are you alright?’ and ’See you!’ sound differently; they are pronounced with a different pitch. For this reason, you need to adjust your speech.

Native speakers clearly accentuate their speech. For example, the phrase ’The question is...’ is followed by a pause that divides the sentence into two logical parts. We, on the other hand, talk in an uninterrupted manner.

It is important to divide your speech with different intonations to make it easier to understand by ear.
Conclusions:

The process of building business relationships with international clients has its quirks.
Our task is to adapt to the cultural differences of our clients the best we can and build value-based relationships with them. Such relationships produce the most exceptional results, both in expanding the portfolio of services provided and increasing customer satisfaction.

Written by: Gulnaz Ibragimova, Customer Relations Manager at ICL Services.

For more information on different levels of business communication, see this video.
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