Going Social Globally: A Global Perspective on Customer Relationships and Social Media

An Interview with Bill Decker, Principal, Partners International

August 5, 2010

According to Bill Decker, an authority on international business who has worked in 72 countries, going social globally means understanding the relationships between company and customer and how they vary from country to country and culture to culture. It means being able to adapt your go-to-market strategies, products and services, partnerships, distribution channels, marketing messages, and support mechanisms. And it means leveraging technology, the Internet, and the human need for interaction in ways that are relevant to the culture. Through diverse examples, Decker points out cultural differences and gives recommendations on how to avoid common pitfalls.


As the planet shrinks (figuratively speaking) and the global marketplace expands, the desire, if not the need, for American companies to do business abroad is only increasing. Doing this well means that more of us have to make some fundamental changes to how we view our companies, our products and services, and the relationships we create and maintain with customers.

According to Bill Decker, an authority on international business who has worked in 72 countries, this largely comes down to understanding the culture within your foreign market and adapting your business strategy and tactics accordingly. His perspective on doing business internationally, building customer relationships, and leveraging social media includes the following observations:

  • Having an employee who can speak French does not mean you have an employee who can do business in France.
  • Many cultures associate a low price with low quality, and may not buy for that reason alone.
  • Social media can be better for strengthening existing customer relationships than for generating new customers.
  • Crowdsourcing can be a successful (and non-confrontational) way of engaging customers online.


The Internet has no geographic borders. And there are no boundaries to the conversations that cut across the social Web. As companies do business in more and more countries, they need to know how to support, engage with, and learn from their customers, wherever they may be and through whatever channels they prefer to use.

Bill Decker is the founder and principal of the Denver-based company, Partners International (http://www.partnersinternational.com), and author of Lessons from the Road: Global Business 1-2-3. He has lived overseas for 14 years, in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and parts of Africa, and he has worked in 72 countries. His specialty is helping clients decide which foreign markets to get into, creating appropriate strategies for doing so, and connecting them with partners on the ground in those locations.

The starting point for doing this is knowing the cultural norms for doing business in these global markets. So we are tapping into Bill's experience and expertise to understand the cultural aspects of customer relationships and social engagement outside the U.S.


Entering Foreign Markets / Finding the Hole

PATRICIA SEYBOLD GROUP (PSG). Your company is called "Partners International." That could mean a lot of different things. What do you want the name to convey, and how does it relate to the work you do?

BILL DECKER. I help companies find business partners in foreign markets. There are a few phases of that. The first phase is building a customer-centric strategy, which should have two parts. It includes (1) how we are picking a market (or how we are picking one market over another), and (2) what is the mode of entry into that market. The reason the mode of entry is so important is your business may look very different in a foreign market then it does here. So, it's about figuring out which market we're going into and what we're going to do in that market. Are we going to do the same business, or are we going to change our business model a little bit? What type of partners are we going to have?

That's what I do, help answer these questions. While this is all happening, there's also an education process. People call it training, but what I'm trying to do is get the organization smart about what it's doing, as opposed to working as a broker and keeping the buyer and seller apart. I'm trying to smarten them up about their foreign markets and get them to know their business partners.

PSG. So you're helping businesses identify appropriate markets abroad, and learn about the ways customers behave in those markets. In so many different countries, the relationships must vary widely between how companies acquire new customers and service and support their customers. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to that as it relates to educating your clients?

BILL DECKER. Well, when you help a company set a strategy, you do what no company wants you to do: lock key executives in a room for 3 to 10 days (they don't want to give up the time or spend the money on a facilitator). So, while this strategic planning process is being developed, the company is starting to get smarter about what will work and what won't work in various markets. And you ask "What does the company offer?" That's the first thing that companies think of. And then they ask, "What does the customer need?" Or, as the French say, "Cherchez le creneau…find the hole." Of course, they should be asking these questions in reverse.

So, while I'm helping them build their strategy, we're looking at the company and we're looking at the world, and we're trying to rate one country versus another using criteria that are specific to the company. For example, people will say, "Let's go to China, it's the biggest market." That's a horrible way to rate a country, because the obvious question is, "The biggest market for what?" I always use the example that Greece, with seven million people, eats more cheese—not just per capita, but raw tonnage—than all of China. So, if you're selling cheese, then China is not the biggest market, even though it's got a billion and a half people.

If you're looking at social media, you may say, "China is the biggest market." Well, 600 million people in China never saw a toothbrush, so they don't have a computer and they don't have a cell phone. So knock about a billion people off of that billion and a half population. Now we have about 500 million people. Market size is what Americans often go with, but there are other things like product adaptability, and whether or not there are a mix and a complement of cultures. And do our executives even want to go to these markets (because it's going to take a lot of time)? How is the American stigma perceived? Are we loved, are we hated? All of these kinds of factors—and I've come up with about 70 of them—go into a matrix, so we can actually grade a country and an opportunity, one versus another.

Myths and Facts on Doing Business in Foreign Markets
(Please download the PDF to see the table.)
Table A. Americans make many assumptions about what goes into doing business in markets outside the United States. This table presents some of the most common myths, along with the corresponding facts.

Language and Culture

PSG. Let's dig into the cultural aspects of your matrix. American organizations and Americans are often criticized for being insular in their thinking and in their business relationships. American companies may know how to do business with Americans, but they don't necessarily know about the cultural issues around doing business in other countries. How should companies think about language and culture as they look to do more business around the world?

BILL DECKER. Culture is the biggest stumbling block. It isn't language; language is only part of culture. A culture is a way of doing things and a belief system. The biggest mistake Americans make is in really not respecting or being interested in the culture they're about to work in. And then, when they are interested, they often do something quite sophomoric. They will learn how a Japanese person hands out a business card, and feel, "Well, that's cross-cultural training."

When it comes to culture, what you're trying to answer is: What are the norms? What are the values? What are the belief systems? How do these people make decisions? What do they regard as truth? Until you understand this, you're really not going to effectively sell into these markets...


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