Inter-Cultural Intelligence

No business can survive without sales.

Let’s face it – without sales, we don’t actually have a business.  This article gets you to think about how your company generates sales and – more importantly – what impacts those sales positively or negatively.

In a world that is becoming more diverse by the minute, have you ever considered how inter-cultural intelligence can increase your sales?

If not, get comfortable and I’ll show you how…

Bringing in the sales

Inter-Cultural Intelligence

Image by John Guccione from Pexels

First – let’s get you thinking about how your company generates business. You may have a salesperson or sales team.  You may have a marketing team that produces a strategic plan every year that comprises various forms of advertising, both traditional and digital, along with a PR campaign. 

Take some time to consider how much time, effort and money is ploughed into bringing in sales each year. As far as actual spend is concerned, it should be pretty easy to calculate.  

The less tangible attributes

Inter-Cultural Intelligence

Image by Michael Wysmierski from Pexels

Now let’s think of some of the less tangible aspects of your business that help to bring in those sales and make a positive impact on the bottom line.  Whilst rarely considered as sales or marketing, these attributes make a direct impact on your customer’s decision to purchase from you… and continue to choose you over your competition.

Things such as:

  • The beaming smile and welcoming attitude of your frontline staff (or the receptionist if you run a small business)
  • The speedy service and friendly nature of your delivery team
  • The emotional intelligence 
  • The active listening skills of your sales team
  • The quality of your product
  • Accessibility
  • The packaging (colour, design, material used, whether it’s eco-friendly or not)
  • How quickly you respond to customer enquiries
  • The list goes on…  
  • And in that list comes inter-cultural intelligence


Inter-Cultural Intelligence

So what is ‘Inter-Cultural Intelligence’?

Well… the name speaks for itself. According to Wikipedia, inter-cultural intelligence is ‘a term that is used for the capability to function effectively in culturally diverse settings’.  

Before I continue, I’d like you to think about the people working in your company. Are they all from the same culture?

Now think about your customers.  Are they all from the same culture?

And your stakeholders?  Hhhmmm… interesting.

One thing that has shocked me for years – despite companies employing people from all over the globe, and serving customers from all over the globe, very few invest in training their employees in the important skill of inter-cultural intelligence.  

When it comes to language – companies do employ staff who speak the language, or languages, of their customers.

But when it comes to culture, very few care if their employees ‘speak the cultural language’ of their customers.

Let’s take a look at some of the things that can negatively impact your sales when your employees are not inter-culturally intelligent.

Here are just a few of the main differences between cultures.

Direct vs Indirect Communication

Indirect communication

Graphic artist Yang Liu comparing ‘East vs West’

Some cultures speak in a very direct manner. Think it. Say it. No fluff. No candy-coating.

Whilst other cultures are more indirect, particularly if they feel their message may hurt the other person’s feelings.

I have seen hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of business left on the table where a salesperson, who comes from a culture of ‘direct communication’, has gone in with the same bulldozer approach with all his clients, and has lost clients along the way who come from a culture with a more ‘indirect’ approach. 

When we speak a different language from our customer, we are forced to adapt by using sign language or getting the help of a translator or learning some basic phrases of our customer’s language.

Yet when we don’t understand or ‘speak’ the cultural language of our customer, we just force our cultural ways on them with no thought about how it may be received.

Hierarchical vs Egalitarian

intercultural intelligence

Graphic artist Yang Liu comparing ‘East vs West’

Whilst some cultures operate in a more hierarchical structure – with many layers of responsibility and power – other cultures are more egalitarian with equal responsibility and power.

These differences are huge.

In all my years of training soft skills – including inter-cultural intelligence – I have heard hundreds of stories from my participants, who range from admin staff to senior management, where they have got frustrated and confused dealing with people from the opposite culture. 

One tiny example that you may have experienced yourself – a junior staff member arriving from a country with a ‘hierarchical’ culture may insist on calling their new boss ‘sir’ or ‘madam’.

Rather than seeing it as a sign of respect (which it is), the boss from the egalitarian culture gets angry with their employee and insists they ‘call me Frank or Mary’ which goes completely against the grain of what the junior staff has been taught and role-modelled all of his/her life. 

So how can this impact sales?

Well… a salesperson from a hierarchical culture may insist on calling your clients ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ which may anger or frustrate your client.

Or, on the contrary, your salesperson may call your client by his/her first name which – to your client – may be completely disrespectful.

Y’see how easy it is to get it wrong?

And how much business you may be losing because of it.

And this is only one small issue that can arise between people from hierarchical and egalitarian cultures. There are numerous other issues that could be pushing your customers away.

Let’s look at one more major difference in cultures…

On-time vs Flexi-time

intercultural intelligence

Graphic artist Yang Liu comparing ‘East vs West’

I’m sure this is something you have all experienced… some cultures are very strict about time-keeping.

12 o’clock means 12 o’clock.  On the dot.

Whereas other cultures prefer to follow ‘flexi-time’.

This has caused no end of frustration between people over the years.  And what you may not realise – no matter where you fall on the spectrum (completely ‘on-time’, completely ‘flexi-time’ or somewhere in between), both cultures believe they are being respectful.

Those who come from an ‘on time’ culture believe it is respectful to be on time so that everyone can plan their day and stick to their plans. And those from a more ‘flexi-time’ culture believe they are being respectful by making allowances for heavy traffic, family issues, etc. that may make the other person late.

Both cultures believe they are showing respect and both feel stressed when forced to conform to the other culture’s time-keeping. 

If your sales team find it frustrating to accept – or adapt to – the time-keeping habits of your clients, and it shows (which it usually does), there is a chance those clients may wish to spend their time – and budget – elsewhere, which means kissing goodbye to even more business. 

I could go on all day but you get the point.

The question to ask yourself now is… what are you doing about it?

Are you doing enough?

Some companies do include a form of ‘cultural training’ in their employee induction programme but that often includes how to shake hands (or not); how to accept or refuse the traditional welcome coffee and, possibly, a few paragraphs on prayer timings and religious holidays.  


What about the deep understanding of cultural differences so that your employees can adapt to any given situation and turn it into a positive.

How many hundreds of thousands of dollars is your company leaving on the table.


The goal is not to download a list of instructions on how to behave when dealing with certain cultures.

The goal is to truly understand the different cultures (and by ‘culture’ we don’t mean ‘country’ or ‘nationality’.

It is not that straightforward).  It’s about understanding the differences and similarities between one culture and another.

Standing in their shoes to understand why they believe what they believe and, therefore, why they behave the way they behave.


To understand that there are many ways of doing things and that your culture is not the only way.  Once you have an understanding and appreciation of other cultures, you are able to bridge the gap and form relationships which, in the corporate world, will ultimately lead to long-term customers and a sizable increase in business.

So what next?

I welcome you to sign up for a free consultation call to discuss how you can develop a more inter-culturally intelligent team. 

And if this article has made you realise your team needs more sales training, sign up for this complimentary sales workshop.

We look forward to hearing from you.


Corrina Cross

Corrina is a People Skills Consultant & Facilitator who is passionate about developing people’s mindset and people skills (‘soft skills’) in order to increase productivity and, ultimately, the bottom line.

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