Why does a product, introduced by the same presentation and the same people, succeed in some countries and fail in others? Take a look at their different listening habits, says Richard Lewis.
Presentation techniques have long been the subject of exhaustive studies by sales and marketing departments, advertising agencies and marketing consultants all around the world. Thousands of books, sales manuals, marketing courses and seminars show how to present a product or service, how to market it and, subsequently, how to sell it. Yet perplexingly, as we all know, sometimes a product sells and sometimes it doesn't.
The fact that success or failure can often depend on cultural factors can be hard to grasp for a company that has invested heavily in developing and promoting what it believes to be an innovative, high-quality product. Yet one can work hard at a presentation, refine the delivery, use the most advanced visual aids and still find that a pitch will never be perfect for all audiences. A presentation cannot possess a consistent impact for the simple reason that audience expectations vary hugely from country to country.
Communication depends not only on the skill of the presenter but, just as important, the listening habits of the customer. Just as different cultures do not use speech in the same way, neither do they listen in the same way. There are good listeners (the Germans, the Swedes) and there are bad ones (the French, the Spaniards). Others, such as the Americans, listen carefully or indifferently, depending on the nature of address.
The problems of using a single style to sell to a wide audience are amply demonstrated by the recent experience of a large multi-national - a company which consistently ranks among the 10 largest European industrials and is a household name in all five continents. Having launched a new product in what were traditionally its largest markets it received a confusingly patchy response.
The product sold very well in France, Portugal, the countries around the Mediterranean and South America and reasonably well in the US, but poorly in Germany, Britain, Scandinavia, Japan, Africa and the Middle East.
The product was technically advanced and well-designed, the presentation meticulously planned and the sales executives, who delivered the presentations, highly-skilled women of several years' experience. So why did the same product, introduced by the same presentation and by the same people, succeed in some markets and fail in others?
The reasons were inevitably cultural, not technical. After spending several days with the presenters, it was not difficult to see why. The women in question were attractive, articulate and extremely lively - their style might be described as vivacious. Such an eager, imaginative approach went down very well with the Greeks, French and Latins in general. The presentation had 'panache'. It was relatively short but had enough punch in it to please the Americans. Yet it was a bit too racy and facile for British ears, lacked the technical information to satisfy the earnest Scandinavians and was woefully short of the level of detail expected in Germany. The Germans have an attention span of at least one hour and are typically unimpressed by 15-minute presentations.
The poor sales figures in Japan, Africa and the Middle East had an entirely different explanation. The presenters' enthusiasm and verve led them to speak far too fast; Arabs and Africans would catch less than half the message, the Japanese one quarter at best. Not only was the delivery too rapid, the English used was unsuitable; a form of standard, slightly slick speech acceptable to native English speakers but too colloquial and idiomatic for foreigners to absorb at speed. When asked if they had understood everything, the Japanese naturally said yes.
The situation was largely rectified by rewriting the presentation in simple, idiom-free 'international' English for the benefit of the Arabs, Africans and Japanese. Turning to the Germans, the remedy was to double the length of the talk and back it up with a mass of printed technical data. For British audiences more context was written into the presentation and a calmer, more factual tone inserted. The Scandinavians were treated similarly.
In the UK, Australia and the US - particularly the latter - the audience wants to be entertained as much as to be 'sold' something. On the other hand, humour is out of place in more formal cultures like those of Japan. In Germany jokes are best avoided. Here, the emphasis is on conveying the solidity of the company, the quality of the product, the good price and prompt delivery date. Presentations are typically well ordered with a clear beginning, middle and end. Such sobriety reaches its height in Japan, where harmony, politeness and respect for the company all receive unprecedented attention.
Not everything depends on context, however. Take the experience of Rolls-Royce. The company was enjoying considerable success with a new engine, which was selling all around the world. After a while the engines started to seize up in some countries, although they continued to work perfectly in others. The product was technically sound, the operating and service manuals were explicit and qualified engineers had made full presentations to all customers. In view of the seriousness of the problem, engineers were sent out again to go through the manuals with the servicing technicians and ensure that everything was being done properly. The company then engaged a specialist in cross-cultural matters to interview the engineers.
It turned out to be a simple language problem. The engineers explained the manuals to all audiences in the same manner that they employed with British technicians. They met with full understanding in the US and some other countries where English listening comprehension was high. In other countries, such as Germany, the technicians asked questions when necessary to make sure they had fully understood. In the countries where the engines had problems the technicians belonged to cultures where the level of English was insufficient to absorb instructions delivered in an idiomatic style. Their cultures also inhibited them from revealing their lack of understanding: to ask for a repetition would have seemed impolite. Ill-mannered or otherwise, a few well-framed questions would have doubtless been cheaper.