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When Best Practices Don’t Travel

HBRSlapping a sticker of the US flag on a Lamborghini does not suddenly make it an American car. By that same token, taking your business to another country without changing anything but the language on your business card is not a sound strategy if you want to entice other cultures into a relationship. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Andy Molinsky and Michael Zakkour relate the doomed story of “Aaron” and his dealings with China, as well as what we can do to ensure our international deals go much better.

Aaron was a successful real estate developer aiming to sell luxury apartments on the Lower East Side in New York City. Having had trouble in recent times finding buyers for his expensive goods domestically, Aaron decided to target the newly wealthy in China. He employed his time-tested marketing approach in Shanghai, hiring the best catering company for food, drink, and decorations, even involving the local media. The only real “tweak” that needed to be made was that Aaron hired an American who spoke fluent Mandarin to make the phone calls for him. Otherwise, it was a pretty American event in a Chinese setting. The result was that only eight people showed up to the event, all of them young people. It is fair to call the event a disaster.

One thing Aaron did not account for was that the Chinese tend to like an air of exclusivity in their business dealings. In creating an event with an open invitation, he inadvertently cheapened the value of his own product. The other error made was that the Chinese like to deal with partners with whom they have developed long-term, trusting relationships. China does not appreciate fly-by-night schemers. Aaron was doomed when he decided to tweak his strategy rather than reframe it for his audience:

Tweaks are great because they require little effort and you can be well on your way to making the transfer into a foreign setting. However, in many cases, tweaks are not enough; they only skim the surface of the much deeper challenges that you face. In these cases, you need a reframe: a major reorientation in your strategy based on very different cultural values, beliefs, and mentality of a foreign marketplace. The case of Amway in China, for example, is a classic situation where a reframe, rather than a tweak, was essential for transferring of business practices cross-culturally. In this case, the company had to develop an entirely new way of selling products when their traditional method of direct selling butted up against official, legal, and cultural obstacles and a 1998 ban on direct MLM selling.

Molinsky and Zakkour recommend hiring a “cultural connector” who has a sophisticated understanding of the culture you are trying to penetrate with your business; finding some person who just speaks the language is not good enough. All worthwhile relationships are based on trust and understanding. When you only pretend to understand a foreign market, your lack of authenticity will become quickly apparent. Put in the effort to make a real connection with your potential partners.

About John Friscia

John Friscia is the Editor of Computer Aid's Accelerating IT Success. He began working for Computer Aid, Inc. in 2013 and continues to provide graphic design support for AITS. He graduated summa cum laude from Shippensburg University with a B.A. in English.

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