Top Tips from Onno

3 Steps to Stronger International Client Relations

2nd November 2020, 9:36 am

2020 has hardly been the best year for business. We’ve all been thrown into a spin and many have had to adapt to new ways of working. Many of us have lost work, had to pivot, and have struggled to keep clients who are in sticky situations.

With all the stress and uncertainty that Covid has brought, we now have the effects of Brexit to look forward to. It’s times like these that securing and nurturing our business relationships is more important than ever. This is easier to do with clients and partners in the same situation as us, who speak the same first language as us, and who have the same cultural baggage as us. It’s considerably trickier when it’s abroad, with cross-cultural elements at play and potential language barriers to contend with.

Read on for my 3 top tips to ensuring stronger relationships with your international clients: now is the time to secure these relations.


  1. Take the time to really learn about the country and the client

A single faux-pas can undo months or years of hard work. It is important that we understand our clients’ approach to business, communication styles, professional relationships, and many other areas that change crossculturally. Some of the most common mistakes we make are:

  • misreading the situation
  • misjudging the client’s behaviour
  • taking offence at actions which are not intended to be rude
  • assuming the information and ideas have been correctly transmittied, in both directions.

The biggest point here is to not jump the gun and dive right in when talking to our international counterparts. Careful judgement of situations and  conversations can help us to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings. I work with a lot of companies who are often upset by a client’s “rude” response, when in fact the issue is actually our interpretation of something that’s perfectly friendly in the client’s culture and definitely not intended to offend.

  • Learn what’s acceptable in terms of scheduling and times.

When agreeing a deadline, how important is that? Is it flexible? Who do you need to get approval from for this? When setting a time for your next meeting, how important is it that you arrive exactly on time or is there flexibility? How much flexibility?

  • Learn who you need to talk to within the company.

Who has the power to agree proposals? Who do you need to talk to first? Is there a hierarchy? When can you talk to them, immediately or later down the line once trust has been built? Who do you need to copy into emails? There are many factors that we need to consider in order not to appear rude or overstep.

There are many aspects we need to consider, and we can’t assume things will work similarly to how they do at home or with other international clients. Each region and country is different. Even those with the same first language as the UK.


  1. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

We often take for granted that we can communicate perfectly well with the client if they speak good English. What we forget is that we can make it a lot easier for them if we adapt the language that we use.

One big way we can make our language clearer is by avoiding phrasal verbs. These are verbs that we use combined with a preposition to transmit a new idea. For example, we can say “I’ll give you the report later today” and the verb ‘give’ has one meaning. If we then say “He needs to give up smoking”, ‘give’ plus the preposition ‘up’ has taken on (another phrasal verb!) a whole new meaning. We use these all the time in English and they can cause real problems for speakers of other languages. Remove these phrasal verbs and replace them with one single verb instead.

Additionally, I would always recommend learning a few basic phrases or greetings in the second language to show a sign of respect and interest. It is easy to do and can go a long way to show goodwill and investment in the relationship.

Culture also plays a big role here. It is vital to understand that many cultures place a lot of importance on saving face: in these cultures it is extremely rude to embarrass someone or tell them that you haven’t understood something. As a result, very often the truth isn’t told directly and we need to understand the subtles cues that go along with the words used. This is a way of protecting the person we are talking to, not as a way of causing problems. Even so, it often results in problems because we aren’t trained to recognise when this is happening.


  1. Use the resources you have to hand, internally and externally

Recognise where you have blind spots and get advice when you need it. Never assume, but always prepare.

Think carefully about who you have in your organisation or network:

  • what native languages do you have?
  • which nationalities do you have?
  • is there anyone in your organisation who can help with first-hand local knowledge, even if they aren’t working in your team?

Use internal resources wisely.

Don’t overlook anyone.

Ask questions – there might be people working for you who have spent 5 years living abroad with excellent information that can really help you.

At the same time, don’t rule out asking for external help. There is plenty of high-quality support available online and through professionals prepared to train you and support you with navigating these differences and the linguistic challenges.

Maintaining these relationships is vital to ongoing business with key clients. Understanding these differences well can also put you in an excellent position when breaking into new international markets. It’s worth investing more than just your time in this. Think what it would cost you to lose a major international client.

Could you benefit from talking to someone about your international clients? Call Kellie at Onno to discuss your needs and see how learning about international differences can be used to leverage your position when trading with foreign companies.

Next Article

10 Tips For Building Generational Inclusive Workplaces

Whilst we focus on many different types of diversity in the workplace, that are all equally important, this post recognises […]
Read Article