As a remodeling contractor whose 35 years in business has taken him throughout Frederick and Montgomery counties, Steve Klitsch has interacted with a variety of clientele from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
Awkward moments followed by apologies led him to the realization that behaviors that are acceptable for people with deep roots in the area may be seen as rude or even offensive to some newcomers, depending on the country or the culture from which they hail, he said.
Additionally, Klitsch said he realized that if he took the time to understand some of these cultural differences and, more importantly, maintained an inquisitive and open-minded approach to his clients, fruitful business relationships had a better chance of blossoming.
A self-described auto-didact with a lifelong dedication to learning, Klitsch said he began to research and then categorize behaviors and gestures acceptable or frowned upon across the breadth of nationalities and cultures of his customers.
From his experience, colleges in the United States don't offer a standardized business curriculum that tackles the issue of dealing with people through the lens of a multicultural perspective.
Klitsch developed his "multicultural matrix," a quick reference chart he provides colleagues at his various talks. He is a speaker for the Mid-Maryland chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, and he teaches students in the distance-learning courses he offers at the Remodelers Institute for LifeLong Learning, a second business he opened in January.
The chart offers laconic takes on how people from, say, West Africa or India or China view matters such as eye contact and posture, or attire and color.
The chart notes that showing the bottoms of one's feet, often a sign of relaxation and ease between people in the United States, is seen as highly offensive to Middle-Easterners and can be taken as a signal to "step outside," Klitsch said.
In West Africa, red is a color of mourning, but in China it symbolizes good luck, he said.
Greeting someone by their first name, even for one's boss, is standard practice in the United States, but using a surname is more appropriate for people in many other cultures, he said.
Klitsch said he stores his business cards both in a leather wallet and a metal case. If he happens to have Japanese clients, who often treat the business card with great respect and frown upon mixing bodily oils or odors with the cards, he'll offer them one from the metal case.
If a client says they can't meet on a Friday, he said, it may mean they are Muslim and view the day as a holy day, the equivalent of Sunday for Christians or Saturday for Jews.
When possible, leaving out the number four in a price for a Chinese client -- a number associated with death -- and including the number eight -- a number representing good fortune -- can make a difference, he said.
The sheer number of factors to keep in mind can lead to confusion, he said, which is why it's important to ask open-ended questions. Regardless, asking questions and listening to clients' answers can help reduce misunderstandings.
Klitsch said he has met people who view this sort of cultural awareness as something they should not have to do as Americans, but it can mean the difference between a making a sale or not.
Elizabeth Chung, executive director of the Asian American Center of Frederick, said both long-standing American citizens and newcomers to the county need to do a better job of understanding each other's culture.
"It's really two ways," she said.
Often times, Asian and other new immigrants might not appear to be a significant client base for local businesses, she said.
Yet, these clients need goods and services and are willing to spend, Chung said. Certain occasions may even warrant a more lavish layout.
"That's why you have to know who your clients are," she said, and tailor to their needs.
When dealing with a house, for instance, Asians tend to be interested in color, the proper placement of objects, the cardinal direction of rooms and incorporating their ideas about the balance and interconnectedness of nature into the design of inside spaces and outdoor gardens, Chung said.
Indians tend to spend for lavish weddings, and Chinese people who can afford to do so may pay a significant sum for funerals, she said.
Understanding who is responsible for making the decision whether to buy a product or service -- be it a husband or a wife -- is also an important consideration, she said.
Sales styles matter, too, Chung said.
An overly arrogant or aggressive approach is an instant turn off among people from different countries, she said.
"Trust is also an issue of the immigrant community," Chung said.
A matter of trust
Jorge Ribas, president and CEO of the Mid-Atlantic Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said social responsibility and ethical business practices are key to expanding client bases in Latino and other communities.
Many of his Latino clients, as well as members of African-American communities, women and the population as a whole, tell him they often feel preyed upon or taken advantage of in the marketplace.
"There's a lot of distrust in communities of people who promise too much," Ribas said. "Reputation is something you earn every day. Immigrant communities love someone that is honest with them."
A bad reputation spreads like wildfire, Ribas said. He often advises clients who call with questions about exorbitant prices or outlandish services to check with the Better Business Bureau or report bad business practices to them.
Ribas said he also advises businesses and people to make sure they secure contracts for delivery of goods or services with terms that are as clear as possible.
Patience is also a virtue when dealing with Latinos or other communities of diverse backgrounds, he said.
American sales forces are often trained to close deals as quickly as possible, or to pepper potential clients with follow-up calls, Ribas said.
"If people look at their businesses in the long term, you build your business one client at a time," he said. "If we build this culture in communities, then clients are more satisfied."