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The Essentials of Cross-cultural Communication and Account Management

Working on a global account with an international team based on four continents in over a dozen cities brings tremendous rewards. Yes, managing time zones can be a challenge, but I’ve found a real joy in connecting with people who have incredibly diverse backgrounds.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” - Marcel Proust

Different perspectives are incredibly useful in that when faced with a new challenge, a diverse group can see multiple facets and different paths to solving the problem. However, communicating across cultures can be confusing and uncertain, and that’s just within one team. In account management, we’re right there in the middle; working with clients to understand their needs, while also trying to be their voice to the internal delivery teams. Unless you have the right frame of mind and approach, all the global communication tools at your disposal can make it too easy to communicate instantly; which often adds uncertainty and risk to meeting client expectations.

Cross-cultural communication

“Cross-cultural communication is about the way people from different cultures communicate when they deal with each other either at a distance, or face to face. Communication can involve spoken and written language, body language, and the language of etiquette and protocol" - Brian J. Hurn and Barry Tomalin

Being able to communicate effectively with your clients and team members, and in the manner expected, is critical and often overlooked. It’s all too easy to get off on the wrong foot with clients if you’re unable to adapt to different cultural business expectations. For example, working with clients in Japan, formality is incredibly important, however, clients in Brazil often communicate in a more informal style. Within my team at Merkle, in cases where English is a second language, I’ve found a mix of formal and information styles work best. Meetings and conference calls will have a formal structure, but then be sure to follow up via instant messages or individual emails to make sure each member of the team is aligned on priorities and all questions have been answered. When communicating across cultures, each touchpoint has a greater opportunity for misunderstanding or misinterpretation — usually because people are using language or expressions that people don’t fully understand — or get the nuance.

Account management

Methodical, disciplined communication strategy, tactics, and practices are critical to getting the best team performance,”  - Joe Mello, Senior Account Director, Merkle.

An account team can have a wide range of roles and responsibilities. A senior account leader fills a leadership role, focusing on the execution of strategic program plans, while a more junior team member is responsible for the day-to-day execution of client programs and is the direct liaison between the internal departments. Whether it’s a face-to-face meeting, writing an email or talking on the phone, account managers need to communicate effectively with their clients and their own team.

The way forward

How can you proactively prepare for multi-cultural business?

  1. Awareness is the first step. Observe how people communicate with you in person, on the phone, and by e-mail. Notice if they are more formal and expressive or more direct and to the point. We all have unconscious biases. Training can teach you how to identify personal bias and provide guidance on how to counteract them. We can’t eliminate them, but we can learn to recognize and change our own behavior.
  2. Understand that cultural diversity is a given and that it brings both benefits and communication challenges to the workplace. Even when employees that are located in different locations or offices speak the same language, (for instance, correspondences between English-speakers in the US and English-speakers in the UK) there are some cultural differences (ex. jokes or business jargon; neither are universal) that should be considered in an effort to optimize communications between the two parties.
  3. When working with people in a different culture, courtesy and goodwill can go a long way to ensuring successful communication. Be patient and work to increase your team’s knowledge and understanding of the cultures within the team. Recognize that a person's own behaviors and reactions are often times culturally driven and while they may not match our own, they are culturally appropriate. Again, patience, courtesy, and a bit of curiosity go a long way. The keys to cross-cultural and account communication are flexibility and discipline.