Serving an international customer base

Learn how to adapt your customer service model to accommodate foreign customers.

Melinda Emerson, known to many as SmallBizLady, is one of America's leading small business experts and is a paid contributor for Wells Fargo.


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Published: June 19, 2013
Updated: January 13, 2017


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Hi, I’m Tegan Jones for the Wells Fargo Business Insight Series. Today we're discussing strategies business owners can use to better serve their foreign customers. Joining me is Melinda Emerson, the SmallBizLady and author of Become Your Own Boss in 12 Months. Thanks for joining me Melinda.


Oh, it’s great to be here with you today Tegan.


Melinda, as you always say, “Understanding your customers is the key to delivering quality customer service.” But I know this can be difficult when you’re working with customers from other cultures. So, what potential issues should business owners look out for when they’re serving a foreign clientele?


First of all, there may be serious barriers to communication with foreign customers. There may be a language barrier. You also want to be very much in tune with non-verbal gestures and familiar with gender roles depending on what part of the world you’re dealing in – particularly if you’re a female business owner. You know, you have to understand how women are perceived in the culture that you’re working with. And obviously there may be some religious traditions that you need to be aware of. So, there are a lot of things like that that you definitely want to pay attention to as you’re working with international customers.


Right, but given that communication styles and religious customs vary by country and region, how can business owners better understand the specific cultural composition of their target market and the people that they’re going to be doing business with?


You’ve got to do you market research. You’ve got to find out what it is to do business with someone from Dubai or someone from Hong Kong. One of the things that I typically tell people to do is reach out to someone in your network that perhaps has already done business or traveled to another part of the world to see if they can give you any powerful insight.

Absolutely do Internet research. There’s no excuse for someone not to find out basic cultural information. It’s just too easy to find this information on the Internet.

And also too, the U.S. Department of Commerce has a great website where they give country-by-country breakdowns with cultural information, demographics information.

There’s also your local chamber of commerce or business development agency in the city where your business is located may offer trade missions to certain foreign countries. So, they may also be a wealth of information in terms of how to do business with people in certain countries.

Lastly, the SBA provides resources for building business partners abroad. And the SBA can help secure visas and any other travel information that you may need before visiting a foreign country to do business.

The more familiar you are with a country’s local demographics the easier it will be for you to determine your market and really promote your brand once you're there doing business.


So, once business owners understand the appropriate cultural norms, how can they adapt their customer service model to accommodate these foreign customers?


First of all, anybody that’s going to do business in a foreign country should really consider employing individuals who are from that country who can give specialized insight and knowledge and make sure that things go smoothly. The kind of people that you might want to look for is certainly someone who speaks the language. Maybe someone that grew up in that country. Also, you want to be able to have someone who can recognize all the non-verbals and the communication styles.

You also should consider developing marketing materials that look like the country that you’re trying to do business. You want to come off like you are very inclusive and certainly you want to publish those materials in the language of the country that you’re going to be trying to do business.


That makes a lot of sense, Melinda. Thanks so much for your time today. You’ve given us some really valuable tips to help business owners better serve an international clientele.


My pleasure, Tegan.


And thank you for joining us for this segment of Wells Fargo Business Insight Series. To learn more about how Wells Fargo Business Banking can help you visit In the meantime we wish you continued success.

Learn more about working internationally.