Over one-third of all Americans today belong to a cultural or ethnical minority. In addition, there are over a million people from other continents immigrating to the United States every year. The number of people from diverse cultures is growing so rapidly that the U.S. Census Bureau expects this group to be nearly half of the population by 2050.

This is a huge market for retailers and service providers all across the country—if you know how to meet the unique needs of customers and clients from other cultures. Let’s take a look at some commonly held perspectives and distinguish truth from myth.

1. People from Other Cultures Only Want to Buy from Someone from Their Own Culture

Nothing could be further from the truth, unless there is a language issue. In fact, many cultural groups would prefer to work with a salesperson from outside their own culture. Asians, for example, are very private about their financial affairs and many are afraid that if they work with an Asian salesperson, he or she might disclose their income, debts and purchases to others in their community.

Most people who complain about having trouble with multicultural customers are European-American salespeople. They can learn how to do business together by understanding the particular wants and needs of people from other cultures.

2. People from Other Cultures Are Secretive about Their Personal Finances

This is a stereotype that actually has some truth to it. When making a large purchase, many people who are new to this country can be extremely private about their financial situation. Asking a question as innocent as “How much do you have for a down payment?” on a large purchase can endanger the relationship you have with your clients.

Many new immigrants are unfamiliar with the banking and legal system in the United States and do not know whom to trust. They do not believe in banks and keep much of their money hidden as cash in their homes.

Even when you are selling big-ticket items, remind your multicultural customers that they are welcome to pay cash for their purchase. Many cultures believe it is a sin to owe others money and do not believe in borrowing, even for very large purchases.

3. People from Outside This Country Are Unreasonable When It Comes to Negotiating

There are two types of countries in the world: negotiating and non-negotiating. The United States is a non-negotiating country: we generally pay the price asked by vendors. In most other countries around the world, people haggle on everything from groceries to clothing to homes. To expect someone from one of these places not to bargain is tantamount to asking them not to breathe.

Experienced negotiators know that when they first make an offer on an item it is the lowest they will ever be able to go. They can only go up from there. This is why they may start embarrassingly low with their initial offer even if they might be willing to pay full price.

Many retailers and service providers do not negotiate the price of their goods and services. In this case you can simply explain the situation this way, “We have sold all of our items (or services) to other buyers (or clients) for this price. To save face with them we must sell this one to you (or provide the same service) for the same price.” People from other cultures can usually relate to the need to “save face” and will not ask another person to lose face with others.

Also, veteran hagglers are aware that they have the most bargaining power just before the transaction closes or the item is delivered. This is when they will usually ask for one extra concession to show their skill. Smart vendors will build an incentive into the deal so they can set something aside for this time, otherwise it will likely come out of their own pockets. For instance, if a new car dealer is willing to throw in the floor mats, it’s best not to include it in the purchase regardless of the culture of the buyer. At delivery of the vehicle it can be thrown in to “sweeten the deal” as long as there is no more negotiating.

4. People Should Do as Americans Do When They Are in This Country

Did you ever wonder why we have a less than glorious reputation when we travel outside our borders? We fly to Germany, France or China and expect the locals to accommodate us in terms of providing the food and other amenities we are familiar with. We commonly expect to be served pizza in Asia and to speak English in France.

Just as it’s difficult for us Americans to leave our two-hundred-year-old culture at the gate when we travel abroad, it’s even harder for those coming here with cultures that are thousands of years old to do as we do here. While they do try to assimilate, it is hard for them.

Also, if we want a little piece of business from the fastest-growing segment of the retail market, it is we who will have to adjust—a little. Take the time to learn about other cultures, languages and foods. As a bonus, you will become a much more interesting person to talk to in the process.

5. We Should Treat Everyone Equally, Regardless of Culture

While it is true that we should treat every customer fairly, this does not necessarily mean equally. For instance, if you meet a prospect who is blind, would you hand her a brochure to read? This is equal, but hardly fair. You surely would want to give this person a special treatment.

If we want to provide the best service possible we need to take into account and respond to the unique needs of every customer or client. This is equally true for being culturally sensitive.

MICHAEL SOON LEE, MBA, CSP, has been a sales manager and
multicultural consultant for over thirty years. He is a professional
speaker and the author of a series of books on marketing and
selling to multicultural customers including
Cross-Cultural Selling for Dummies.