Listening across the cultures


Listening is hard to begin with (just ask a psychiatrist).

Listening across the cultures is doubly hard. It requires an extensive grasp of the others’ frame of reference.

As technology enables the world to shrink, more groups join the globalized market.

(The PM of Malaysia was on GPS telling Fareed that in the 60’s, Malaysia poverty rate was more than 50% – it is now under 3.5%).

Shop till you drop.

Yet, we don’t listen to what our constituents are telling us. The algorithm from Amazon seems to do a better job.

At least, it mined data of my past purchases, and recommended similar products.

Listening is hard work.

In The Empathic Civilization, the author touches on our increased capacity to empathize, as more and more studies on how the brain works are released. To listen is to engage, to comprehend and to visualize being in their shoes. In short, to empathize.

Beginners in Sales were often taught to “push” their products and to sell features and rates, all the while praying for the law of average (numbers game) to work.

Until the pipe line runs dry, and these feature salesmen hit a drought.

Who are the customers? What do they really want? What are their felt needs? How can we uncover those needs and wants, then to show that gap between need and solution which brings values. A sale is just a beginning of a life-long relationship.

I was fortunate to have worked in multi-cultural teams, serving the needs of a multi-cultural market place.

In our team, you can find Russian, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, Indian, Filippino, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Hispanic and Vietnamese. We  catered to Arminian, Cambodian, and everyone else in between.

It forced me to be culturally sensitive. What’s underneath the tip of that iceberg? What should be left unsaid? What should be uncovered?

There will always be misunderstandings across the cultures (comedians have a hard time cross-over this gap). And this makes negotiation much more challenging (we revert to the path of least resistance, and assume – with arrogance – that we know what they want).

People in general speak through their body language.

To listen across the cultures,  one needs to listen with both ears and eyes. Ask open-ended questions, and watch HOW the person across the table answer those questions.

I walked across the street in San Francisco once, with two really tall Eastern European resellers. One guy had his head shaved, the other long hair (makes me look like Chow in Wolfpack) . Then I visited another Pakistanis reseller who was always in suit and tie. And finally, I sat down sharing a meal with our Chinese agent. Food makes for good camaraderie. In each case, I morphed to “mirror” the others (be brief with Westerners, and be relational with Asians).

People want low price. Yes, but they also want a range of choices, great service and reliability (or brand).

During this recession, it seems that companies like Costco, McDonald, Nordstrom all did well because they have listened to their customers (besides consistency across all location – trust factor).

US News and World Report joined the fate of Christian Science Monitor to downsize and limit themselves to just newsstand and special issues on Hospital and University ranking.

Those are obvious examples of listening to the customers.

Yes, time is hard. It will weed out companies and consultants who did not research and respond to a diverse customer base. First seek understanding, then to be understood. The shotgun theory is out. Now is time for engagement, collaboration (across the cultures) and value creation.  If it’s too late to learn another language, at least you should try to “read” the non-verbal signals.  80% of communication is conveyed via body language (as of this edit, President of the US and China, both met “informally” near Santa Monica, without wearing a tie). Nail that, then you are ahead in this global market place. Watch YouTube where the world is trying to say something. Unless you preferred to stick with the old model T when consumers now have a choice anywhere between a Leaf and a Nano. Listening is hard because it requires you to change a hard habit in your formative years. To start, just pretend to be everyone’s psychiatrist, without the pay.

Then you might get your pay day on top of becoming a great listener who knows the what and why of the conversation across the cultures.

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