Three Customer Cultures to Consider

Whether you’re connecting with potential customers for the first time or revisiting current customers, don’t forget about their cultures.  Many things are in play when you interact with people, including their positions, personalities, generations, etc.  It’s easy to overlook the influence of cultures.  They seem to operate in the background, like coding in software that controls how you communicate with programs.  Let’s look at three important categories of customer culture:

1. National

This is fairly obvious.  People who grow up in different cultures likely have different perspectives on life in general and business in particular.  I lived in Korea for a couple of years and learned that in many Asian cultures saying no is more nuanced than Americans are used to.   A mentor advised me that a good approach was to “never take yes for an answer.”  You need to keep discussing matters over an extended period, including social (drinking) gatherings, to get every issue out in the open.  I later worked with officers of the Royal Netherlands Air Force.  Minimal small talk, every important issue brought up in the first meeting – and then we went drinking and didn’t talk business at all.  

National culture considerations even help in domestic business development.  I wasn’t able to assist a business unit having difficulties with a Vietnamese-American US government program manager until we learned that he and his family were Vietnamese Boat People, refugees who fled Vietnam in 1975.  He had a difficult childhood.  Understandably, you had to work to get his trust; but once you had it, programs flourished.  Interestingly, his background was brought to our attention by an Egyptian-American on the team who devoted more time talking with him than the others did.  Cultural diversity can be a force multiplier in business.

2. Regional

In business development approaches, what plays in London may not play the same way in Liverpool.  What plays in Berlin may not play the same way in Bavaria.  And what plays in New York may not play the same way in Napa Valley.  Once I was sent out from the Washington Metro Area to Silicon Valley to discuss business development with a tech company my corporation had recently bought.  I showed up in a coat and slacks talking about long-cycle government contracts and they were in jeans and tee shirts wanting to talk about the short-cycle commission sales they were hired for.  It was a meeting that didn’t go well.  I wish I’d read this blog before that trip.  But it taught me a great lesson in regional cultural sensitivities.

3. Organizational

In his seminal work on the Cuban Missile Crisis, Harvard political scientist Graham Allison analyzed how US government agencies negotiated with each other over the response to the Soviets.  In describing the effect of organizations on stated positions, Allison wrote: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”  In dealing with others, people tend to hold values favorable to their organizations above all others.

Those who work for government agencies, foreign and domestic, generally behave according to the culture of their organizations.  In a past blog, “Four Military Customer Cultures,” I commented on the cultural differences among four of our armed services.  All federal agencies are not the same and there’s a compelling need to tailor your business development approaches accordingly.  You shouldn’t try selling to NASA with the same pitch you’re giving to the State Department.  And vice versa.

In the commercial world, there are vast differences in organizational values and beliefs among companies even in the same market segment.  I recommend you focus on answers (and evidence) to the following questions: “Who do they say they are?”  “What do they say they do?” and “What do they say their customers value?”  Don’t forget that a few moments of research on the Internet before customer meetings may reward you with useful insights into their organizational cultures – and successful outcomes.

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