Africa can be one of the toughest markets to break into as a large corporation let alone a smaller business. In order to spread your business wings to Africa, you need to know what to offer and structure it in a manner which is most familiar to whom you are targeting – even if it means going to the length of adopting an African language.
Good communication is an imperative part of achieving success in all aspects of life, but especially when it comes to conducting business. Trying to sell your product or service is challenging enough when you don’t have language barriers to overcome and cultural differences to contend with. Yet with globalization and rapid advances in technology shrinking the world, cross-cultural and international trade are increasingly becoming a reality for businesses of all sizes.
This is something that even smaller companies are now being forced to deal with, says Louise Robinson, Sales Director of CG Consulting, a strategic marketing consultancy based in Cape Town, South Africa. “In order to remain competitive, even small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are starting to look further afield to find prospective clients.”
Robinson’s firm specializes in lead generation and also has a division, called Database360, that is solely dedicated to creating databases for companies aiming to do business across various sectors throughout Africa and the Middle East; regions where it is not unusual for languages and customs to differ vastly within borders and even within a city or town’s limits.
“Being faced with such a bewildering array of linguistic and cultural diversity can be intimidating to say the least,” Robinson says. “While misunderstandings can sometimes be amusing to travellers, it can have dire consequences, including serious financial repercussions, when you are attempting a business transaction and trying to close a deal.”
Last year, the Economist Intelligence Unit, a business research unit of the Economist magazine, conducted a survey among 572 senior executives. It predictably concluded that poor communication, language barriers and messages that become “lost in translation” are costing companies a great deal of money, with nearly half of the respondents saying that it has halted major international business deals in their tracks, and 64% of them saying that poor communication skills have negatively impacted their plans for international expansion. Another 75% was of the opinion that their employees’ ability to communicate is only average or below average, while 40% blamed it on recruiters, saying they are not trained enough to select people who are “suited to cross-cultural environments”.
Of course, technology has brought about mobile apps and programs that can translate almost any language on the fly. “Anyone who has ever tried to translate a Mandarin document into English via a computer program will be able to attest from the odd results the translator dished up, such programs – although enormously helpful – do have their limitations,” Robinson says. “Nothing beats native human speakers, which is why even the UN still uses interpreters. There is simply no room for misunderstanding when you are serious about your negotiations.”
In addition, using the local language on business documents helps cement the association, she adds. “For example, if you are having an event in a French-speaking country, the invitation should be in French, even if some of the speakers will be using English. This not only helps generate interest, but goodwill because it proves that you are prepared to make an effort.”
Robinson says it’s for this reason that Database 360 employs native French and Arabic speakers. “When clients approach us to compile corporate marketing databases of companies and prospective clients in their target market in Africa and the Middle East, we take the first crucial step into allowing them to branch out their business internationally, making the introduction and explaining what the company and its products or services are all about,” she explains.
But, Robinson notes, understanding goes beyond fluency in a foreign language. “It is about comprehending all the various cultural and religious customs in those regions too. Respect and understanding of their cultures are held in high esteem by business owners, especially in those regions. If you show that you are making an effort by hiring someone who is able to communicate effectively, you will make a favourable impression, which will make them far more receptive to forging business ties with your company.”