Global Tensions and Your Sales Force

Remarkably, the outpouring of sympathy and support the United States received from the international community after Sept. 11, 2001, has not just dissipated, it has reversed. Many news sources report that anti--American sentiment abroad is at an all-time high.

Naturally, U.S. business leaders are concerned about the impact that these ill feelings toward the U.S. might have on their sales and marketing efforts overseas. Will consumers in other countries begin boycotting products from countries they don't like? Will U.S. companies feel the pinch?

Before we address those questions, it's critical to put current tensions in context. While it's easy to blame disputes over Iraq for the current U.S.-European tensions, anti--American sentiment has been developing for decades. Heavy-handed diplomatic efforts and senior-level name calling between U.S. and European officials haven't helped. But the essential differences long predate political tensions of the moment, and they go well beyond American disagreements with France and Germany. Simply put, Europeans and Americans see the world, and organize their societies, differently.

Many Americans tend to dismiss those differences as simply Europeans' jealous reaction to America's coveted economic and military strength. This explanation, however, misses many more substantive points of difference. Europeans certainly recognize, and perhaps envy, America's prosperity and power. But they have increasingly viewed America as a rougher and less humane society than their own homelands.

Take capital punishment as an example. Most Europeans are unwilling to grant their government the power to put someone to death. Knowing firsthand that a country very quickly can find itself governed by a ruthless and brutal political party, Europeans tend to be cautious, and even frightened, about allowing any government to "play God." What's more, in various European newspapers, several stories have appeared about innocent people on death row and the alleged unwillingness of many American states to correct these situations.

Healthcare represents another difference. Europeans view the lack of national health coverage in the U.S. as evidence that America is more harsh and uncaring than their own countries.

Many Europeans also think Americans lack personal freedoms. In most of Europe drug use is largely decriminalized. Even with hard drugs, therapy is seen as a more appropriate response than jail. In America the U.S. Attorney General is making headlines by trying to arrest doctors who prescribe marijuana to terminally ill patients to ease their pain. On many issues regarding personal choice and personal morality, Europeans governments are less intrusive.

Of course, many Americans see these matters quite differently, which is exactly the point we are trying to make. From environmental issues to the amount of vacation time workers deserve, European and American attitudes are often far apart, and they have been for quite some time. Generally speaking, Europe is more liberal than America, and when America has a conservative president, those differences seem even greater. The Iraq crisis only brings underlying tensions to the surface.

No excuses
The question is, to what extent will these differences make doing business in each other's countries more difficult? The answer? Not much. Overcoming significant cultural differences is the norm when it comes to operating a global business.

Yes, there will be occasional talk about boycotting products. But are the people most willing to do without French wine likely to drink it in the first place? And how many well-heeled folks are refusing to drive their Mercedes? Not many, we would bet. When you start to see that happen, then you may need to worry that political disagreements will affect your business.

Now, we wouldn't put it past your least productive salespeople to blame their poor performance on current, transatlantic rifts. But then again, poor performers have an excuse for everything. Don't put too much stock in what they may be saying. We suggest instead that you listen primarily to your best producing sales reps. Typically, they'll give you a much more realistic view.

Also, Gallup Organization research reveals that customer engagement occurs largely on a personal level. It's a salesperson interacting with a customer that creates the emotional bond; normally, geopolitical tensions have little chance of overriding these relationships. In most instances global companies have a very local appearance in the country in which they operate. Hence, French nationals call on French customers, and German nationals sell to German clients. This is where the strength of your customer relations lies--not between Washington and Paris or Washington and Berlin.

Normal international business concerns, such as currency fluctuations, competitive entries, and the general strength of local economies, will play a much bigger role than disagreements at the United Nations. Fortunately in business, unlike in politics, cooler heads usually prevail, and as a rule we can count on customers to act largely in their economic self-interest. That's why Americans aren't going to be in any big hurry to dump their Mercedes, regardless of Germany's position on Iraq.

However, if you are an American executive don't expect your employees who are nationals in the countries where you sell to defend American policies to their customers. They may occasionally get lambasted by a customer who feels particularly anti-American, but most great salespeople know it is prudent to let customers have their say and then get back to business. Anti--American--or anti--French or anti--German--sentiments are just more objections that a talented rep must be able to overcome.

OK, you might have some nagging doubts about whether the current difficulties really affect your sales. Realistically, evaluating a sales force's effectiveness in international markets has always been much tougher than evaluating performance on your home turf. Cultural differences will always exist, regardless of the presence of short-term political tensions. However, the basic measurements of customer engagement, sales force engagement, and talent are still the best indicators of whether you are maximizing your sales opportunities, at home or abroad.

About the Authors
Benson Smith is a consultant, speaker, and author for The Gallup Organization, and an expert in the area of sales force effectiveness. Tony Rutigliano is a senior managing consultant, speaker, and author for The Gallup Organization, and an expert in the areas of sales force effectiveness, organizational effectiveness, and talent assessment. Smith and Rutigliano are coauthors of Discover Your Sales Strengths: How the World's Greatest Salespeople Develop Winning Careers

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