The language barrier can be a serious obstacle to doing business internationally. We should also regard language as just one item in our cultural toolbox when meeting our overseas representatives and customers. I sold interior products into 32 countries for 8 years from the late ‘90s, mainly into Europe and the fringes of Europe, and my travels took me on regular business trips (Oops! Sorry, “Jollies”) to Istanbul where I was privileged to work with one of the finest and most dedicated distributors on the planet.
These guys were really keen. I mean REALLY keen! I would arrive in Istanbul around mid-afternoon, to accompany them to a couple of potential customers before finally touching ground in their office, where I would give product training sessions in slow, deliberate English. Because no, I don’t speak Turkish. Then back in the car to be steered wildly through narrow and hilly backstreets in order to avoid the seemingly permanent rush hour traffic, sometimes I suspect in the wrong direction, and then out for a meal more often than not with clients – on one occasion two meals! Well it would have been churlish to refuse.
If midnight couldn’t come soon enough, my 6:30am breakfast alarm always came far too soon. I was generally picked up by 8am and taken to the office where the morning would be spent in meetings. I was always heavily outnumbered, normally around five to one. The meetings were chaotic, with two partners talking simultaneously, and generally about different things, sometimes in Turkish, sometimes in English. Then there were the project managers who also speed-talked bilingually and gesticulated their way through the morning, while occasionally taking themselves off to answer the phone in mid-conversation. And I would have several working days like that before taking my flight back to Manchester.
All that sounds disorganised and a bit mad, but that was their way and they seemed to miss nothing. All projects were properly logged and each and every one of that fantastic, energetic team could forecast almost to the day when orders would be placed. In the calm after the chaos my own forecasting took minutes because they had done such a good job. And after several trips, and a number of long exhibitions, we developed substantial business and forged a strong friendship that generally meant I would have to stay out well after midnight and still wake to a 6:30am alarm!
By a complete quirk of chance, I found a very good way of holding their attention during meetings so that I could say my piece uninterrupted for at least 15 minutes. It became a tradition to buy each other small gifts, and as I looked in the Manchester Airport shop for suitable English items my eyes fell upon toffee tins shaped like a number of very British icons: a London Bus, a red postbox, a telephone box, and others. So I bought a different one for each of my Turkish distributor friends.
They collected me from the airport. We visited a couple of customers en route to the office. I gave them product training. We saw some more customers, and took some of them out for a meal until well after midnight. My alarm went at 7am. I was collected at 8. Through the traffic. Into the office, and into another couple of hours of loud and frenetic organised chaos”. I was finding it very tough to break through the wall of enthusiasm and hold their attention for more than a few minutes … until I remembered the toffees.
One of the guys was due to go to see a client, and I wanted to give out the gifts while everyone was in the office. So I paused the meeting in my most polite loud English, and asked to distribute my gifts. I wasn’t expecting each of them to sample the toffees straight away. And after a couple of minutes I realised that the meeting had fallen silent. The English toffees were so sticky that my Turkish friends were having great trouble talking. I was able to hold the floor for an uninterrupted 15 minutes, during which I delivered every key point that I had wanted to get across. They seemed to like the toffee, so I took some more on my next visit. In return, they gave me real Turkish Delight.
I learned several things from my time selling in Istanbul.
1. You will never have more energy than your Turkish distributor
2. The Turks are the most efficient salespeople on earth
3. Friendship and business do mix, and business thrives on the back of friendship
4. Be prepared for very long working days and minimal sleep
5. Either learn Turkish or take an interpreter who can then hear what is being said
6. Sticky toffees are great for meeting control