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Fall 2008
Making Cross-Cultural Connections Work

On her first trip to China, Susan Bristol, who speaks three languages—English, French and Greek—and is co-owner of Asian Village Antiques in Edwards, CO wondered why the Chinese she spoke to giggled when she said ‘thank you, thank you’ in their language. She soon discovered instead of saying ‘thank you, thank you’ she was saying ‘crazy, crazy.’ She laughs about it now but Bristol says that because of experiences like these she understands the difficulties multicultural customers may have when visiting another country and in her store she tries to be understanding, helpful and make everyone feel welcome.

With a weak dollar and thriving tourism it is likely your store is seeing a rise in international customers. Add to that the fact that one-third of all Americans are part of a minority group, according to Michael Lee, author and president of EthnoConnect of Dublin, CA, and it is more important than ever to be culturally sensitive to your customers and your employees.

When first we meet

Language is often the most obvious barrier when an international customer visits your store. Bristol says she does not look at it that way; language does not have to be a barrier to good communication, she says. What is most important is creating a welcoming environment, says Dr. Maura Cullen, diversity and leadership trainer and speaker. “No matter what one’s cultural background, they can sense whether your store has a spirit of friendliness is and welcoming,” she says. When a customer enters and you notice they may not speak your language, there are different ways to approach them. First of all, let the customer dictate the greeting, says Lee.

Different cultures have different greetings so welcome them to your store and observe what happens, he says. Follow their lead, which will prevent you from making them uncomfortable in your store or embarrassing yourself. Both Lee and Cullen say it is perfectly acceptable to ask people questions about their culture. Just be aware how you phrase things, says Cullen, who has written a book on the subject entitled Thirty-five Dumb Things Well Intentioned People Say. Sometimes the intention and the impact of what one says are two different things, she says. She recommends asking the individual if they mind if you ask them a question and then ask them about where they are from or inquire about the language they are speaking in a respectful, interested manner. Bristol says she likes to ask multicultural customers where they are from and relate to them through her own experiences with traveling, to make them feel familiar and welcome.

When language is an issue, Lee says do not let it get in the way of good communication. “We as humans have been communicating differently forever,” he says. Remember that even though the instinct of many is to speak louder when someone does not understand them the better choice is to speak slower and use gestures. Bristol says she’s drawn pictures for customers in order to communicate with those that did not understand her. “You can usually find a way to communicate,” she says. You will get far with the customer if you help them to feel like “we’re in this together,” says Cullen. Nicole Magistro, co-owner of the Bookworm gift and book store in Edwards, CO encourages retailers not to worry about speaking different languages; she likes to meet customers where they are and try to work through language challenges creatively. “There are lots of ways to communicate,” she says.

Make your store a friendly place

With one-third of Americans part of a minority group and representing a $2 trillion market there may be opportunity to increase sales and expand your customer base by catering to the multicultural market. Lee suggests recruiting an advisory board of customers or community members that represent the different cultures represented in your customer base and asking them for advice on how to reach out to the different communities. In order to reach out to various cultural groups you will need to create an environment that is welcoming to them. For example, learn how to greet different cultures. In general, Asian cultures do not shake hands or make eye contact as a sign of respect, says Lee. Bi-lingual signage or price tags in Euros can also be a good way to make customers feel welcome.

Magistro reaches out to her multicultural community by inviting elementary school-aged children’s groups to her store for a tour and a talk and encourages them to come back with their families. She says it helps them feel more comfortable coming to her store.

Training your staff on how to be culturally sensitive is also important, says Lee. Train your staff to recognize and understand different cultural norms, says Cullen, by teaching them how to ask questions so as not to offend customers and how to communicate with those that speak different languages. Lee suggests even playing charades to practice non-verbal communication. Magistro trains her staff in the art of making customers feel welcome no matter who they are. “Our store should be just as welcoming for everyone as having visitors to your home,’ say Magistro. She says she trains her staff to greet all customers, gauge their mood, read their body language and do what you can to provide what they need.

Marketing to multicultural customers

You can grow your business by carrying products that appeal specifically to your multicultural customers. Lee suggests consulting your cultural advisory board and learning about the important holidays and how they are celebrated in your area. For example, consider carrying products for the Chinese New Year or Cinco de Mayo. Even if you carry products for only a few of the holidays you are likely to endear yourself to the local community and increase sales, says Lee. Take time to get educated about the differences between American culture and the rest. Even something as basic as gift wrapping, could be different, says Lee. For example, Japanese do not like to wrap in bright colors but prefer pastels and the Chinese will never wrap a present in white because it’s the color of death. Lee also says different gifts have different meanings that you may want to be aware of, like the Chinese will not give clocks or watches as gifts because it is a reminder of life ticking away. Find out what gifts are most popular for the holidays. For example, coffee and tea sets are popular gifts for Kwanza and gift baskets and margarita pitchers with glasses are popular for Cinco de Mayo.

Hiring multicultural employees

According to Lee’s company, EthnoConnect, it’s estimated that by 2008, 29 percent of the workforce will be comprised of minorities and 41 percent of new workers entering the workforce will be minorities. You may already be seeing this trend in your store. Retailers need to be as culturally sensitive when hiring as when serving customers. You may even want to hire more individuals that represent the ethnic communities in your neighborhood. Cullen suggests you consider why you value hiring a diverse workforce and what you are seeking. Are you seeking the cultural knowledge or the bi-lingual capabilities? She says the more your staff looks like the community and customers in your store, the more successful your store will be. Reaching out to diverse cultures and having bi-lingual employees will create a more loyal customer base. Magistro says she has seen an increase in Spanish-speaking customers since she hired two Spanish-speaking employees. They have definitely helped her to connect with more customers, she says.

When hiring you need to be aware of cultural differences, says Lee. The differences from hiring Caucasian Americans is most noted in advertising, interviewing processes, testing, and resumes. For example, some Asian and Hispanic cultures tend to understate their skills and experience. Also, be understanding that people from some cultures are not comfortable with phone interviews and may interview stronger when met in person, says Lee. To work with these differences, Lee suggests using a variety of techniques to learn about your candidates.

Once you’ve found some great staff members, encourage them to refer their friends and family, suggests Lee. In many countries the system of getting referrals for qualified candidates is more common for employers than advertising. This is especially true in Asian, Hispanic and African American communities that tend to be close knit and are likely to make referrals, Lee says. You may consider offering a bonus to employees that refer candidates that you end up hiring. Keep in mind that there are differences in who goes where to look for help wanted ads. According to Lee, Asians and Asian Indians are much more likely to refer to websites for job listings whereas Hispanics and African Americans are more likely to refer to more personal contacts and newspapers. He warns that you must be careful in how you advertise for a multicultural employee and retailers should refer to a trusted source, whether a book, consultant, or lawyer on the legal and ethical ways to advertise for multicultural employees. For instance, you cannot say you are seeking a Hispanic to work in your store; however you can say you are seeking a Spanish-speaking employee.

Just as you stay attuned to the needs of your customers, make the experience of a diverse workforce a positive experience by asking your employees, “What can I do as an employer to make this a successful experience for you?” says Cullen. This type of attitude will go a long way to building loyalty within your staff as well as trickle down as great service to your customers.

When you attract diversity to your store you not only increase your customer base, but will likely increase your bottom line in the process. Magistro says she always strives to practice the Golden Rule with her customers and employees, which means she treats others like she would like to be treated and always makes others feel welcome.

With the influx of international tourists and an increasingly diverse America, it’s a rule more retailers need to take to heart. Catering well to multicultural customers and employees is good for you and for your business.


Melissa Kellogg

Kellogg is a freelance writer specializing in mountain home and living trends, marketing, real estate and business. She is based in Edwards, CO, and is a regular contributor to Mountain House & Home magazine. Her work has also been published in various newspapers and magazines, such as Beaver Creek Magazine and the Vail Daily.

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