Many B2B executives have found that expanding their linguistic horizons has also expanded their customer base.
The importance of multilingualism was driven home lately in an article by Ofer Shoshan, CEO of One Hour Translation, who recently wrote The 6 Top Languages Global-Minded CEOs Should Know.
He not only makes the case for multilingualism in the workforce, but reveals that one of the world’s best known global businessmen, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, regrets not learning a language other than English.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, in contrast, showed off his semi-fluent Mandarin skills during a question and answer period at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, last October, demonstrating – at least implicitly – the significance of speaking the language of the customer.
Mandarin and Cantonese could be as important to every executives as English and French is in Canada, due to increasing demographics, according to Mark Evans, a marketing consultant and author of a new book, Storytelling for Startups. Evans is also a regular columnist for B2BNN.
“In some cases, I think it is a good idea to attempt to speak in a second language, even if it’s just a couple of sentences,” Evans says. “The effort will be much appreciated because it is a sign of respect. That said, the attempt should be well-practiced and vetted.”
There are many advantages to multilingualism in the workforce, particularly for companies that want to expand internationally, he adds.
“It gives them a competitive edge because it is easier to establish relationships. I also think multilingualism can be a powerful tool for recruiting top-notch talent,” Evans says.
Orun Bhuiyan, co-founder of marketing firm SEOcial, is fluent in Russian and French and many staff in the company also speak French. The B2B firm in Toronto has done business with companies whose leadership spoke predominantly Mandarin, Russian and French.
“A CEO—or any executive dealing with foreign business—should gauge a situation: some are appropriate to demonstrate fledgling linguistic skills. Some are not,” Bhuiyan explains.
”Attempting basic sentences and demonstrating a novice ability to speak a language can break tension and develop a sense of camaraderie; however, intermediate speakers that try to communicate continuously in a foreign language can cause issues if the conversation isn’t light-hearted.”
If a business conversation takes a serious tone, he cautions, “linguistic nuances can render the intermediate speaker misinterpreted, and that’s dangerous to the world of business.”
Be wary of trying to do too much with a language you have begun to learn. After all, it can be embarrassing to make a grievous language mistake in your meeting with a new client.
Meanwhile, Stephane Bourque, the CEO and founder of Vancouver-based Incognito Software Systems, says that since many of their clients are outside Canada, his French and Spanish are integral to conducting business.
Founded in 1992, the company works with broadband operators around the globe who manage more than 160 million subscriber devices.
Many of his employees speak more than one language, due largely to the fact that its become necessary to communicate with their partners, customers and even other offices in Europe and Asia.
About three-quarters of his staff are multilingual, and they speak the gamut: Mandarin and Cantonese, Ukrainian, Polish, Hungarian, Spanish.
“It helps with global business interactions,” sums up Bourque.
“When it comes to China, traveling – we have to bring a sales director to help with the translation. It’s the culture and language that makes it difficult, more than anywhere else in the world, I think.”
He notes that contracts are especially nuanced, delicate, and prone to misunderstandings in different languages.
Three tongues in particular, he advises, might be advantageous to the Canadian B2B CEO.
“French, English and Spanish are incredible assets anywhere in the world,” he says.
He adds: “In North America, invest in Spanish; it also gets you to understand Portuguese. Spanish is now spoken by a lot of technical people in the US. By far it would open your product to a lot more markets.”
Photo via cbo-eco.ca