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More Myths About Multicultural Customers

Multicultural customers

September 3, 2008
By Michael Soon Lee


Over one-third of all North
Americans today are minorities; plus there are over a million people
from overseas immigrating every year. The numbers of people from
diverse cultures are growing so rapidly that the census bureau expects
this group to be nearly half of the population by 2050.

Over one-third of all North Americans today are minorities; plus there are over a million people from overseas immigrating every year. The numbers of people from diverse cultures are growing so rapidly that the census bureau expects this group to be nearly half of the population by 2050.

This is a huge market for retailers and service providers – like vending operators – if you know how to meet the unique needs of customers and clients from other cultures.

“Multicultural people have superstitions and beliefs that are totally incomprehensible.”


Remember that people already living in the Western world have beliefs that often baffle outsiders; such as the fact that black cats, walking under ladders, and the number 13 are unlucky. Most other cultures have their own beliefs that are just different.

Many cultural beliefs happen to directly affect the purchase of goods and services such as how items are packaged, colours that goods are wrapped in and how items are priced.

For instance, many Asians believe that the number four is unlucky because when pronounced in Japanese or Chinese it sounds very similar to those cultures’ word for “death.” Items packaged in groups of four can symbolize bad luck for those people who believe in numerology.

Notice, for instance, that if you buy a tea set it is usually packaged with five cups, not four, for this reason.

On the other hand, the number three can be bad luck for many Southeast Asians. You never want to package or even photograph them in groups of three since bad luck is believed to come to the person in the middle.

Just as there are very few hospitals or hotels with a 13th floor in North America the same buildings in Asia lack a fourth floor. You can see that this belief is similar in both countries just the numbers are different.

“Some people from outside are unethical because they insist on renegotiating a purchase contract after it has been signed.”

While it’s true that people from other cultures often try to renegotiate a purchase contract after it has been signed, it has nothing to do with ethics.

For example, the United States is a “low context” country where everything is spelled out between people either verbally or in a detailed, written contract. Other countries are “high context” where much more information is derived from the context of the communication and less is spelled out. 

In high context countries it is understood that contracts only reflect the agreement between the parties at the beginning of a relationship, which can change as they get to know each other. As a result, the parties are obligated to help each other “adjust” the contract to their needs until it is completed. 

Keep this in mind when working with customers from high context countries such as Mexico, China, Japan, and the Middle East. You may wish to save something for the end of the transaction as things adjust. If you give your “bottom line price” too early it is sure to make things difficult during your relationship.

“People from other cultures are just too much trouble to bother with.”

I constantly hear this statement from retailers, service providers and their salespeople throughout the country. Too bad for them, because if you know how to meet the special needs of multicultural customers they can be just as loyal and enjoyable to work with as anyone else.

In addition, people from other cultures are very good about referring their friends and family if you serve them with sensitivity and patience.

An added bonus when working with people from outside the country is the opportunity to learn about other cultures. Just think of it. You can take a round-the-world trip without getting seasick or losing one piece of luggage.

“It would be too much trouble to customize my product or service to people from other cultures.”

Actually, making your business attractive to people from other cultures is quite easy.

First, start with your marketing material. Print it in the major languages of the customers who frequent your locations. Be sure to get help with the translation because many concepts and words in English do not convert easily to other languages. Also be sure to print in the correct language. For example, while Chinese, Korean, and Japanese may appear similar to the untrained eye, they are very different.

You may want to consider hiring someone who speaks the language of your major group of multicultural customers or clients. However, if they find you sensitive and patient with people who have language problems they will usually find a friend or family member to interpret.

Excellent customer service is a universal language, as is friendliness and a willingness to learn about other people’s culture.

Next, hire a consultant to look at your locations, packaging, and other information to make it more culturally friendly. Issues to consider include: “Feng Shui” (placement of objects for optimum energy flow); good and bad numerology (the number eight can be lucky for some groups while seven can be fortuitous for others); packaging (remember to avoid grouping three or four of anything, depending on the groups you serve); some groups prefer that gifts be wrapped in bright colours while others favor more muted tones (get help from a consultant); and much more.

“People don’t want to talk about their culture – they just want to be treated like everyone else.”

This is probably the biggest myth when dealing with people from other cultures. We know we are different and unless something about culture is mentioned early in your relationship with a multicultural client it will always stand as a barrier to building true rapport.

Once you take a sincere interest in your customers’ cultural background they are usually more than happy to tell you about their language, food, and even beliefs. Get into the habit of asking every customer, “Where do your ancestors come from?”

Notice, this can get the conversation started with someone from Ireland just as easily as Thailand. 
Try asking customers how to say “hello” or even your name in their native tongue. You may be slightly embarrassed as you struggle with their language but they’ll love you for it because now you know how they feel trying to speak English.

If you want to be truly successful with people from other cultures you must make this agreement with each and every one of them:  “I will teach you about Canadian customs and practices as they relate to my business. In exchange, I want you to teach me about your cultural background.”

In this way, you develop a mutually beneficial relationship, which will hopefully last a lifetime.

Michael Soon Lee, MBA, CSP, has been a retail and service manager as well as a multicultural consultant for over 30 years. He is a nationally recognized professional speaker and the author of a series of books on marketing and selling to multicultural customers, including the upcoming “Cross-Cultural Selling for Dummies.” Michael can be reached at (800) 41-SPEAK or by e-mail at: .

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