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Michael Soon Lee is a marketing guru who is the leading expert in selling to people from diverse cultures. He was a Marketing Director for the State of California, a professor of marketing at universities and a producer for the ABC Television Network.
Michael has spoken around the world on the subject of selling to multicultural customers for over 20 years. He has been an award-winning salesperson as well as sales manager of both large franchised companies and small independent firms.
EthnoConnect helps companies increase sales to multicultural customers. Clients include: Coca-Cola, Chevron, Boeing, State Farm Insurance, University of Wisconsin, National Association of Realtors and over 1,000 others. They train salespeople how to build trusting relationships with Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, Middle Easterners and others.
MO: What inspired to create EthoConnect?
Michael: In 1985 I wanted to be a great motivational speaker like Zig Ziglar or Tony Robbins. Unfortunately, no one would hire me to compete with these superstars. Fortunately, at the time there were thousands to Chinese people moving out Hong Kong and moving to California because that country’s lease was going to expire in a dozen years and the land would go from British rule to the control of the mainland Chinese. The highly capitalistic people of Hong Kong were afraid that when their country was taken over by the Communists that all of their homes, land and businesses would become worthless so they were selling everything at fire sale prices and investing in America. However, as they did they were driving real estate agents crazy because they would haggle over every tiny aspect of the transaction, would not buy certain houses because they violated the rules of Fung Shui and did other things that Realtors® could not understand.
So I did a lot of research and developed a class called, “Secrets of Selling to Asian Clients” which agents loved because it gave them information they could use immediately to close more sales to Asians. Then someone asked me to put together a similar class about Hispanics and then another one about African Americans. Eventually I just combined them all into one class about how to sell homes to multicultural real estate clients.
Then one day a woman agent came up to me after my class and said, “My husband owns an Acura dealership and they have exactly the same problem with their multicultural car customers as we do with our minority home buyers. Could you come and speak to his salespeople?” After some research I did the training and since that time I’ve spoken not only to the real estate and automobile industries but to salespeople in financial services, insurance and even dentistry.
While speaking and writing about bridging differences between various cultures was never anything I had originally conceived of, once I listened to what my audience wanted it became my specialty and a subject that I love!
MO: Why should small business owners be concerned about minority customers?
Michael: Minorities are the fastest-growing consumer group in America with over one-third of all Americans being Hispanic, African American and Asian with the Census Bureau estimating that they will become the majority by 2042 or sooner. They buy more than $3 trillion worth of goods and services annually which is more than all but the six largest economies of the world.
There is almost no part of the country that does not have a significant minority population. Small business owners who do not take the time to learn how to satisfy the unique needs of multicultural customers are missing out on a huge opportunity to meet a largely unmet need while substantially increasing their profits at the same time.
MO: Don’t minority customers just want to buy from minority businesses?
Michael: Most minority customers will buy from anyone as long as they are treated with sensitivity to their culture. Unfortunately, in the first thirty seconds most untrained business owners and their salespeople will unintentionally insult a multicultural customer at least three times. None of us would want to patronize a business that treated us this badly regardless of what culture we were from!
In addition, some minorities specifically look for people from outside their culture to buy from to maintain their privacy. For instance, when buying real estate or life insurance many customers may not want to share their personal finances or health condition with someone from their culture for fear that they might share this information with others in their community.
MO: Why do you think that so many companies are missing out on the opportunity to increase sales by failing to become more culturally sensitive?
Michael: I’ve found that it’s usually a lack of understanding about the opportunity they are missing or how little it takes to treat people in a culturally appropriate manner. For example, dropping simple assumptions can go a long way towards bridging cultural differences such as assuming that everyone wants to shake hands which can be extremely offensive and uncomfortable for many cultural groups.
MO: How has EthoConnect evolved since you launched back in 1990?
Michael: It has gone from just me traveling around the country teaching salespeople to be culturally competent to now having a team of trainers, writers, videographers and others who can provide complete training solutions to companies both small and large. We not only provide live training but have expanded to online interactive courses, written customized training manuals and everything in-between.
MO: What’s the biggest mistake business owners make when trying to obtain more multicultural customers?
Michael: I believe that the biggest mistake is overlooking the opportunity to serve the multicultural market. All they have to do is go to the U.S. Census Bureau website (www.census.gov) and look at how many minorities of different types are in their service area.
MO: Can you provide our readers with two tips from your book, “Cross-Cultural Selling for Dummies?”
Michael: First, don’t be afraid to ask people about their culture. Minorities are usually happy to tell you exactly where they’re from so you don’t have to make incorrect assumptions. Americans tend to shy away from talking about culture for fear of offending others. However, if you don’t ask all you can do is assume and you are more likely to offend people by making silly assumptions.
Second, look for experts to help you begin the process of develop relationships with the largest community of minorities in your area. It takes more than a few ads in their language to build a trusting long-term relationship. You’ve got to demonstrate your commitment for a sustained period of time before you begin to earn their business.
MO: You’ve spoken around the world on the subject of selling to multicultural customers for over 20 years. What speaking topics are currently most in demand?
Michael: There is still a very strong interest in how to do more business with minority buyers since their numbers continue to grow, not only in the United States, but around the world. Along with this topic people also want to know how to negotiate more effectively with multicultural customers since this is an integral part of doing business with people from Asia, Latin American and the Middle East. Bargaining is such a hot topic that I wrote the book, “Black Belt Negotiating” to help people overcome this challenge.