International Experience

Selling Professional Services in Different Cultures

“It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it – that’s what gets results” – Bananarama and Fun Boy Three 1982.

Over the years we have helped professional service firm clients in almost every part of the world to develop profitable client relationships and win high quality work. The ideas, concepts and approaches we teach seem to work well everywhere and this got me thinking. Does that mean that selling professional services is the same the whole world over? Can anyone go anywhere in the world and be successful by doing as they do in their own marketplace?

I had my own ideas on this subject but, before starting on this article, I decide to tap into the accumulated knowledge and varied perspectives of people I have worked with around the world. I managed to get input from about 30 people who live, work and/or sell professional services in most parts of Europe, Asia, the US, Latin America, the Middle East and Australasia.

Among the people I asked were a Spaniard and a Mexican. Both are extremely experienced in winning, developing and managing high quality clients in their own home markets.

I asked them to give me a list of the “Do’s” and “Don’ts” in building a strong reputation and relationships, approaching and engaging with new clients, making presentations and winning business. This is the combined list they came up with:


  • Deliver quality
  • Deliver value in marketing
  • Recruit top talent
  • Position distinctive characteristics
  • Carry out client service review meetings
  • Grow institutional links
  • Share with clients and contacts useful information
  • Show genuine interest in the individual
  • Socialise – business lunches
  • Have regular informal contact
  • Ask current clients for references
  • Carry out careful pre-meeting preparation
  • Listen to the client
  • Deliver precise messages
  • Capture the client’s needs
  • Include a clear scope and approach in proposals
  • Provide evidence/credentials
  • Innovate
  • Develop strong presentation skills


  • (The opposite of do’s, and…)
  • Ignore clients when you are not serving/selling to them
  • Sell aggressively
  • Put pressure on the client to get business
  • Assume that the client/contact “knows who we are”
  • Cold call
  • Go with standard solutions
  • Criticise competitors
  • Write long proposals
  • Cut and paste proposals/solutions
  • Use slides full of words
  • Read slides

My first reaction to this list was to think that this is all good advice for anyone looking to sell professional services in the UK, or the US, or anywhere else I have worked! Perhaps it is the same everywhere!

We collected more evidence during the last multicultural conference we led – for a global accounting network last November. At the beginning of the conference we put forward the view that there are a number of elements common to business development in all of the markets served by people and firms at the conference. These, we suggested, included:

Selling Professional Services in Different Cultures

Our multicultural audience were all happy that these were key determinants of business development success in their countries. So, it’s official – the ‘sales process’ – the way to win work – is universal.

The core of successful selling of professional services does not change.

So, does this mean that I can go about business development in Copenhagen in precisely the same way I would in Mumbai, Houston or Tokyo? Clearly not. In fact the audience at last November’s conference were as sure that their home markets were unique as they were happy to accept the ‘universals’ listed above. So if the ‘core’ is the same, what is different? In the immortal words of Bananarama and the Fun Boy Three in 1982: “It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it – that’s what gets results”.

We may all need to do the same things but it is HOW we have to do them that is unique. Business development is the same, it is the culture – often at a very ‘fine grain’ that is different.

The way culture affects business development seems to me to be mostly in the etiquette that works in different cultures and the different rituals that are necessary in developing relationships and winning work in professional services. This etiquette might involve:

  • The importance, symbolism and way of handling business cards
  • The need (or not) for lengthy non-business ‘chat’ at the beginning of client interactions
  • The importance of age (and the appearance of age) in the ‘seller’
  • The importance of titles, qualifications and seniority
  • The need to drink large quantities of alcohol – or the need to avoid alcohol completely
  • The relevance and manner of client entertainment – from lunches through karaoke to sporting events and family involvement
  • The willingness or not to engage on a personal level outside of business
  • The importance of family ties
  • The importance of institutional ties
  • What you must accept (coffee, particular food) to avoid insulting your host
  • What does ‘late’ mean in each culture and what is unacceptably early
  • How to challenge without offending – when and by whom
  • …and many more!

The more we understand the specifics in each culture the less likely it is that our approach will ‘jar’ with our potential clients. In fact even the act of making an effort will help to secure forgiveness for many minor mishaps. We can demonstrate respect and adaptability (listed above as ‘universals’) by openness to – and respect for – the local culture.

Genuine interest and understanding (more ‘universals’) are evident in a desire to understand the local culture and to approach things differently – in a way that is most comfortable for the people with whom we are trying to engage.

Knowing ‘the right way’ in each culture and, most importantly, ‘the wrong way’, is vital if we are to avoid undermining the development of a relationship. I believe that knowing the ‘Do’s’ is important, and that understanding the ‘Don’ts’ is absolutely essential.

I do not propose to pass on specific guidance in this article for particular cultures. There are many guides available for individual countries.

There is even a tool for the iPhone that sells itself as a “Global Positioning System to navigate through intercultural differences”! I would recommend that you consult one or more of those guides and also that you discuss the situation with people you trust and who know the local culture. (An example of the type of guidance you can gain from a trusted source is shown in the sidebar “Business Development in Turkey”.) However I have listed three examples below that give a flavour of the insights I gained during the time I was researching this article:

1. In Denmark and in other Scandinavian countries there is a ‘law’ called the Jante Law, which defines what is considered ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in people’s attitude and behaviour. In essence this ‘law’ seems designed to stop people getting above themselves. It says, among other things:

  • Don’t think you are anything special
  • Don’t think you are smarter than us
  • Don’t think you know more than us
  • Don’t think you are more important than us
  • Don’t think you can teach us anything

Any behaviour that hints at arrogance is disapproved of. Imagine that you did not know this ‘law’, particularly if you were selling and/or delivering consultancy services in Denmark – what to you might be an “enthusiastic” and “confident” approach might easily come across as something rather different and unattractive.

2. In contrast, one of my clients who is involved in business development in all parts of the world has noticed that an understated or ‘quietly confident’ approach that might work with English clients, would be seen by US buyers as denoting a lack of confidence in a product, service or organisation. In her experience it is her “louder/brasher” consultants who are most successful in the US.

3. Most of my respondents noted that one of the major differences between cultures is in people’s treatment of TIME. This is manifest in, amongst other things, the relative importance of deadlines, the rate at which relationships can be developed and the speed with which discussions should turn to business.

If you find out one thing before attempting to succeed in a culture different from your own I would encourage you to get guidance in this area. [For some very interesting theory on why time is handled differently in different cultures take a look at Understanding Cultural Differences: Germans, French and Americans; Edward T. Hall and Mildred Hall, Intercultural Press Inc. first published 1990. The book contrasts Monochronic Cultures (for example the US and Germany) and Polychronic Cultures (for example France and Spain).]

I had not heard of (1) before discussing this article with a Danish client. Now I will take care in my selling efforts and indeed in how I consult with clients in Scandinavia. The experience in (2) above may or may not be universal but it will be another element to consider when putting together proposals and presentations for US clients. Reading the book mentioned in (3) makes clear how deep these differences are and how dangerous ignorance can be.

Let’s complicate this a little further! Sometimes the difference within countries is just as pronounced as the difference between countries. As an example, assuming all parts of Belgium are the same is a recipe for disaster. Also Rome is perhaps more different to Milan than Milan is to parts of Switzerland. The effects of culture are also different for different generations in the same country. Public sector clients have different ‘cultures’ to private sector organisations. And, reaching the ‘finest grain’ of all, every person is clearly unique. Every Japanese person is different to every other Japanese person.

In fact every person is like an iceberg – with visible behaviour above the surface of the water and hidden depths of opinion, prejudice, personality and perspective below. In order to build a strong relationship with (and sell well to) anyone we need to understand that person in depth. (Of course how deep an understanding one could/should ever get, and how quickly, is yet another cultural issue.)


Actually, rather than complicating things, these extra dimensions of difference probably simplify the whole thing. The key is to treat each situation/person/organisation as unique, to understand as well as possible that situation/person and to adapt behaviour to ‘fit’ (without being false or insincere). CULTURE is one element of that uniqueness to be understood and dealt with – and enjoyed!

In conclusion I have tried to gather together some of the advice I have been given in the last few weeks as I have been researching this article. The list below is not exhaustive but I hope you find it of value:

1. Have, and demonstrate, real respect for the cultural differences you find
2. Approach each situation with an open mind and a desire to learn
3. Be flexible in your approach
4. Be ultra-sensitive to signals and try to understand what they mean
5. Don’t try to BE THEM but demonstrate that you are making a real effort – learning a few words or sentences in their language can go a very long way
6. Get guidance from those who really know. Use an agent/intermediary you trust if necessary
7. Try to find out the ‘do’s’ but make sure you really understand the ‘don’ts’
8. Invest time in the ‘discovery phase’ of relationships and selling situations
9. Listen with the intent to understand – not to reply
10. Enjoy exploring new worlds – people will be more likely to help you to succeed if you do.

Sidebar – Business Development in Turkey

” Turkish people love to serve food and drink to their guests. If they offer you tea, coffee or any food during your meeting you have to accept at least one of them. But during Ramadan month it changes; in especially traditional Turkish owned companies you may not be served anything.

“You can not ask directly a question like “do we have an hour?”.

If they do not tell anything about time at the beginning you need to find out during the conversation. Sometimes you think that it will be an hour but then everything goes well and suddenly they may ask to have lunch together which means a good sign and you need to accept!

So always have to be careful about planning the rest of the day, never put another meeting with a close time.

Speaking on the phone, if you agreed to have a meeting for example five days later, you need to confirm again by e-mail or telephone 1-2 days before. Religion and politics are two dangerous subjects you need to be very, very careful and try not to speak about them. If you need a subject to speak about try sports especially football”.

As you may know Turkey has different regions with different cultures. In many regions of Anatolia it is very important for most people to understand where you were born as they choose to do business with their fellow citizens.

Appearance is another important point. Especially ladies should be very careful. If you are too attractive people may not respect you and they will not consider you professional.

Talking about ‘money’ is found very rude. Referrals and networking are very very important. At the beginning, even very professional people try to understand your relationships, friends in other companies’ management, ask indirect questions to find out the people you know and who you make business with.

Family life is very important. You may be asked a lot of questions about your family, marital status, kids, etc.

“Old people are always respected. In family businesses they stay as the top person till they want to leave or die.”

Ayşegül Aksu, PACE Partners International, Istanbul, Turkey