How To Win Across Cultures

Charlie Van Norman
6 min readJul 7, 2021

When I joined SoftServe over a year ago, I had little to no experience with Ukrainian or eastern European culture. Having been born in the U.S. and being employed only by U.S. companies, it was a totally new feeling to work with eastern Europeans to qualify, scope, and kick off projects for clients. I quickly realized that our cultures were different; and learning about the way people from eastern Europe work taught me a lot about my own methods, which until now were hidden to me.

Before I jump straight into listing a few of the differences I’ve observed, I want to level set. It’s important to note that neither culture is right or wrong in the way we think or behave professionally. We are simply different, and understanding one another can help our deals go much more smoothly. Indeed, as our president Harry Propper mentioned at our Sales Kickoff 2020, we are successful precisely *because* of these two different cultures working together in harmony. Both sides bring a critical piece of the equation and by cooperating well, we can deliver the best results and experience for our clients.

Here are some differences I’ve observed, and how we handle it at SoftServe:

Risk

Eastern: More risk-averse. It’s important to discover, scope and plan before starting work; this is to ensure that promises can be kept and the client would get a good, predictable result.

Western: Risk-tolerant. It’s ok to move forward without full information; it is assumed that as more is learned, the scope and work may change. This way, we can start early and get to a good result faster.

How we collaborate: We do need to scope and discover properly (remember the eternal joke of Sales over-promising what Engineering can deliver!), and we must also be conscientious of the timing and flexibility needs from the client. In other words, a balance must be struck. Also it is much more palatable for Eastern folks to move forward with more uncertainty if it is understood that *both* parties accept the risk.* So, communication is key when forming the deal; if a Western client wants to move forward with more risk/less information, that is acceptable to everyone if it is well understood. If this is not communicated, Eastern teams will say “no” to the burden of risk when it is not clear the client is accepting this risk.

*Special thanks to Dima Martynov, VP Delivery Healthcare, for this insight

Urgency

Western: There is often a sense of urgency, especially in the sales org, to turn around documents / presentations / answers very quickly for every client. When the client is waiting for the next step for 2+ days, westerners may get nervous and begin putting more pressure on those responsible for the response. Just recently I was asked by an executive to make sure “The presentation was ready by Tuesday!” — but when I asked Why, it turns out Wednesday was OK too, which was a better fit for the schedules of our teams.

Eastern: It’s more important to do things right than to do them quickly. Also, people are busy, and without clear prioritization of communication needs, it’s easy for something to be overlooked that doesn’t seem important compared to everything else. If everything is urgent, nothing is.

How we collaborate: During regular business, make sure to only “make things urgent” in limited amounts. Everyone’s time needs to be respected. Requests that are truly urgent should be labeled as such: “We’d really like to get an answer today” versus “We will definitely lose the client if we don’t know this by 1 PM Pacific.” The qualification of Why the task is urgent and the Result of doing or not doing a task in a certain time is critical information needed to make these decisions.

Communication

Western: When communicating details about a presale, we often include too much, including all the nuance and background of a client or conversation. Some Westerners love to tell stories about why the client got into this situation and how we got to this specific need.

Eastern: While details and nuance is helpful, it’s important to highlight the critical /actionable items. If the information does not directly inform what actions can be taken, it dilutes the signal to noise ratio and makes it more difficult to move the deal forward. All the nuance in the world won’t help you if you need to read a novel just to know what the client expects tomorrow.

How we collaborate: When sharing details about a presale, we make sure to prioritize the critical information and next steps, so that it’s easy to quickly scan and orient towards progressing the sale. This is usually done with clear headings for each critical area, and ends with a “Next Steps/ Urgent items” section. It’s a simple thing, but the right amount of actionable information is a key ingredient to a successful engagement.

Uncertainty-avoidance

Eastern: To best deliver a technical solution, the full puzzle should be understood. The goal should be articulated along with a detailed, realistic implementation plan. Otherwise, the project may appear too risky; the main concern being that as the solution is developed, it may stray outside the lines of the true technical requirements and constraints, and in the end will result in wasted work, change orders, or incomplete solutions.

Western: The end goal should be well understood, and an agile game plan should be implemented quickly. The full details of requirements and constraints may not be known at the outset, and often cannot be known in advance; instead, the team will start quickly and adapt as needed.

How we collaborate: In reality, both perspectives are needed, and we end up meeting in the middle. Also, I’ve mentioned two extremes on a spectrum, but rarely is either party entirely on that side of the spectrum. A balance of “start quickly and be agile” with “do due diligence beforehand so we can properly plan and scope” is critical to a successful deal.

Long Term vs Short Term Thinking

Western: Shorter term focused; quick wins and fast turnarounds are all the rage, and everyone is in a rush.

Eastern: Take the longer view over many months or years, because companies and success is a long term investment that can only grow over sufficient time.

How we collaborate: Clients are constantly in a hurry, and want to move quickly with engagements and initiatives. It can be difficult to “give the client what they want” without taking the longer view, because a short term project and quick win may miss the bigger picture. As always, a balance needs to be struck between the two; and because client success is baked into our DNA, we will always think about the long term path of a client, even if they are only worried about short term results. So when we present the early stages of a solution to a client, we’ve already discussed the approach and vision for the longer term, so that we’re laying the foundation for success in the future.

Of course it’s not always this simple, and I don’t mean to paint the picture that Westerners aren’t capable of thinking long term! On average, the timescales are slightly shorter for how Westerners think about winning, and the balance towards longer term thinking from Easterners means a more stable and predictable journey for client success over the coming years.

Conclusion

Most of the points I’ve made here may seem obvious and be broad generalizations, and that’s true. I’m not able to share specific details of client engagements here, so I’ve got to work in more general terms. I hope this article is helpful to you, whether you’re from East, West, North or South, in having better conversations with your clients and teams. If you only take one thing from this article, it should be that members of another culture want to win just as much as you do! The baseline thought patterns may be quite different between you, so understanding these differences, and investing into communication about your different viewpoints, will help illuminate the shared path to success.

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