Everything written here could easily be applied to many languages, countries and cultures but the focus of this article is on the American market and primarily American English.
I am quite used to reading correspondence from people whose first language is not English. I am also used to speaking with people whose first language is not English. So I have no problem with imperfect English or English spoken with a non-American or British accent. I do my best to speak a number of other languages and I know that my grammar and accent are far from perfect so I would never judge my counterpart. But I am not the usual American. Most Americans have not traveled outside the USA very much if at all. Only 35% of Americans even have a passport. Americans consider English the only important language and have a difficult time imagining that other people do not speak and think in English the way they do. Most American business people are not patient with people who are not able to express themselves quickly and clearly in English. Even someone considered fluent in English in their own country might not be considered so in a meeting with American customers.
Even accents are psychologically important to Americans. Consciously or unconsciously most Americans judge those with accents different from their own. That includes regional American accents and foreign accents. (Americans are certainly not the only culture to do this, most countries I have lived in or worked in are the same way but here we are discussing Americans). For instance, someone with a south east American accent will have an additional hill to climb when attempting to sell their products or services to someone in New York City. Americans tend to think of British accents as elitist and intelligent initially. Someone with an eastern European accent and imperfect English will be considered less intelligent and backward. An Italian selling pasta can be very successful with an Italian accent but that same person selling bonds might have a difficult time selling those bonds. All of these communication prejudices can be overcome but it takes time. Often time you do not have when you want to sell your product or service.
This goes for written English as well. Especially in websites, emails, promotional materials and branding. Often I have been required to do research for American companies that includes many websites of non-American companies. One of the glaring inadequacies I see quite often is poor English spelling, usage and grammar. A more subtle error I see often is poor marketing English. A website with these English deficits will bring a laugh from those reading the site but will seldom generate confidence or interest. The conscious or unconscious thought will be, “Why should I consider purchasing a product from people who cannot even create their promotional materials with proper English?” Most Americans will not notice a well written email in English, they expect that, but they will most certainly notice a poorly written one.
Of course if the products or services you are offering are unique and in great demand then none of these issues are going to stop Americans from purchasing your products. But if you are competing with other companies, especially American companies, then these matters are extremely important and can cause your sales efforts to fail.
So with this in mind here are some recommendations and rules for success:
Hire a credible native English speaker to assist and to represent you and your company even when you are in attendance at a sales meeting or trade show
Have a very fluent or native English speaker write or edit your email correspondence with American colleagues and customers, ideally someone with good writing and marketing skills
Have a native English speaker conduct your initial sales phone calls
Even after a professional translation have your website and promotional materials text reviewed and edited by a native American English speaker with good writing and marketing skills
Do not go live with your English language website until you have done this
Be sure your branding and marketing campaigns are interesting and attractive to American English cultures. Often you will need to adjust your marketing to regional American markets and tastes as well
Having said all of this, there are many Americans who are well traveled, well-educated and very understanding, kind and patient. But you cannot expect to meet with those Americans every time and those Americans may not be your customers. Be prepared for these cultural attitudes and you will not be unpleasantly surprised. Language and culture are only aspects of a successful marketing and sales campaign but ones that are extremely important. Do not ignore them. Invest the time, energy and money required to do this perfectly.
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