“When it comes to effective marketing, it is not what you say that matters, it is how you say it. Ask any dog.” – Thom Mead
“The inability to set aside something that you know but that someone else does not know is such a pervasive affliction of the human mind . . . “ – Steven Pinker
Marketing and branding challenges among outsourcing providers have been a topic of great interest recently, with HfS Research and other research groups, and especially on LinkedIn catering to the industry. See here for a very recent article from HfS on this topic about why outsourcing marketing is so horrible. This is a complicated topic, and has puzzled many savvy business professionals in the industry for some time. The focus of this article is that marketing and branding with offshore outsourcing providers is often very culturally based and is usually reflected in the very poorly written customer-facing content from such offshore providers. Bear in mind, also, that the perspective on this topic is from the United States as a sales and marketing professional working with offshore providers, mainly in India.
After being in the publishing outsourcing industry for almost ten years, and traditional publishing for more than 20 years, with an MA in English, I have experienced many profound challenges with this issue as a sales person. My understanding of this challenge is that many of the core issues are cultural in nature, and usually not individual personality traits. Although I am not a licensed social psychologist, my experiences have lead me to conclude that marketing, branding, and quality content in writing are often deeply rooted in one’s educational and cultural background that is often very geographical in nature. I also am very aware that although many talk about this issue in private, many are reluctant to express opinions in public forums like LinkedIn since the topic is often highly charged with racial and cultural bias and often comes across as politically incorrect. I hope to tread a fine line on this topic here by not concluding that one culture is right or wrong. However, there are often profoundly different cultural issues that are often clearly reflected in written communication that offshore providers try to use as a marketing tool.
Many of these marketing, branding, and written communication challenges are often deeply rooted in Eastern cultures for many complex reasons such as the differences in educational systems. Arun Jethmalani, CEO at ValueNotes, the outsourcing research group in Pune, India, has noted this issue with the following: “The Indian educational system is very quantitative in its learning skills, but often does not give adequate attention to qualitative skills such as writing and communicating well in marketing functions. Consequently, Indians are often outstanding at software and programing skills, finance, and accounting, and operations, but when it comes to content development for marketing and branding, a skill set that is generally poorly developed in India.”
Another very important issue to consider is that India has only been an independent economy and country from the United Kingdom for about 60 years, so the business maturity and sophistication with certain skills such as marketing are still very young in comparison to the United States and other western countries.
Clearly, learning English beyond an everyday conversational level is quite difficult. The language becomes more complicated the deeper you delve into the formal business or scientific levels. There are many variants, even within the UK and the US, and many struggle with this in India, Eastern Europe and other countries.
In the very recent white paper from Outsourcing Center, ‘Five Reasons Why Outsourcing Fails‘, this particular topic is highlighted in the following (italics mine): “There is a lack of communication: It isn’t what you say but what is understood that is important. This can arise from a variety of factors such as cultural differences, language capabilities, differences in industry terms and jargon, even technological limitations.”
I recently finished reading an enormously insightful book about this topic as it relates to the fundamental social and psychological differences with those in the East and those in the West by Richard Nisbett: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why. Anyone interested in a deep dive on this topic should read this book since it provides a very insightful overview to many of the cultural challenges that everyone seems to face with outsourcing initiatives – especially when they fail.
One of the key issues that Nisbett highlights is a cornerstone theme in social psychology, “the fundamental attribution error” (or FAE, for short). This concept highlights the pernicious human tendency to incorrectly attribute behaviour based on individual personality traits rather than on situational or cultural factors. In other words, culture and geography are often much more influential with behaviour than many of us would like to believe. Of particular interest, this tendency is especially prominent when explaining other’s behaviour, although not necessarily our own. The fundamental question that we often ask about another’s behaviour is the following: “Is this behaviour the person, or the situation?”
A few brief observations about outsourcing and marketing and branding relative to written communication – which is often one of the most critical marketing tools for providers trying to gain new clients in other cultures. A short caveat: effective marketing is directly related to effective communication and, unfortunately, with many buyers, you often do not get a second chance to make a good first impression–a very critical issue in an increasingly mature outsourcing market.
Our perspective is that marketing is a fundamental tool for an effective sales process.
Outsourcing providers in Asia often have very poorly developed websites and customer-facing documents in terms of effective and correct English, regardless of their annual sales. Many who see this in the West are often baffled by the often unintelligible use of English. Potential customers often think: “Do they proofread the English before going public?” My particular vertical is publishing outsourcing, and in this vertical, the level of bafflement with publishers can be acute. One can only imagine how the legal process outsourcing industry perceives this since legal issues have many language details that must be clearly communicated. However, with accounting and financial services, the customer may not have such a sophisticated need for effective written content, so every vertical may have a different need for customer-facing content.
Again, effective communication skills are often a pivotal marketing and branding issue that tells customers “I understand your needs, and can address them effectively. I can communicate with you.” Again, at the most basic level marketing and communication are closely intertwined and inseparable. Think of the topic this way, in terms of marketing and perception: this is like showing up for a business meeting with a hangover, not taking a bath for two weeks, not shaving, and not wearing clean clothes. No one would seriously consider this in any business situation, East or West, regardless of culture. However, you often you see this challenge in customer-facing documents that often give customers the very wrong, first impression, especially with websites. The prospective client reads it and thinks, “Wow…they think this is good…good enough to persuade me to do business with them? Likely, this represents the best they can do with the language.” There is nothing more negative when a potential customer thinks this when initially reviewing a new providers’ services. An obvious and painful example from real life in publishing outsourcing: a very large offshore provider that I worked with recently misspelled the word “English” in their overview of marketing offshore editorial services for publishers.
Also, offshore providers often have a terribly difficult time articulating differentiation statements about their services in a clear and concise manner when compared to their Western competitors. Effective branding statements show customers that you understand the broader market, what competitors are or are not doing, and why their service is compelling. Differentiation indicates that a provider has a keen understanding of your value proposition and what brings innovation to potential customers. Often, you see websites and customer-facing documents that are very “feature” driven, rather than “benefit” driven which for many in the West is marketing, branding, and sales 101. Simplified: a value proposition focuses not on the provider, but on understanding and solving the customer’s problems with measurable advantages.
Customers buy “benefits” not “features.” “Features” are all about “providers,” and “benefits” are all about customers. This often leaves the customer wondering “why would I want to buy this service since I do not understand what the benefits are for my company?” Buyers want solutions with clear, specific, quantifiable benefits articulated, that reflect the provider is providing more than a low-cost fee for service…but a solution with a clear ROI. For a small minority of buyers low cost is the only value they are seeking, unfortunately, but for a majority of buyers there is more – such as innovation, quality, and turnaround time.
Such branding and differentiation shows that the provider has keen critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and ultimately understands their customers. Offshore providers, since they often struggle with differentiation statements, frequently fall back and sell on price since it is so easy to articulate (“we have the best price”), and buyers are often lured by a low price like a sailor to the siren’s song, which does not culminate in a ship wreck. Such sourcing relationships often become superficial and tactical, with little value or innovation, not strategic. This issue has been a viral topic in outsourcing over the last year or more: “What is the value and innovation of outsourcing beyond pricing?” Stated another way, “what value or innovation does the provider bring to the table to improve my services when handled offshore other than the lowest price?” Unfortunately, because these providers often do not understand the value of their services from the buyer’s perspective, and are ill-equipped to articulate it, the only basis of comparison often becomes pricing because the buyer perceives the services as interchangeable commodities.
Sharing my observations in sales and marketing from the American buyer’s perspective, the offshore provider’s profuse use of polysyllabic words and their associated attempts to over-intellectualise topics only results in endless wandering pages that confuse and confound the reader. Instead, what is needed is a simple, straightforward, and well-constructed paragraph. Keeping the message plain and simple with supporting details that answer the question “What value does your service offer?” is critical.
One of the recent developments in business process outsourcing with customer service (call centres) to Asia has been the dramatic shift in geography for the service from India – that once dominated this vertical – to the Philippines in the last couple of years. See the article from The New York Times in 2011, ‘The New Capital For Call Centers‘.
This is a classic example of the cultural differences in spoken English between two Asian cultures, not just Asian and Eastern cultures, and what many Western customers perceive as obvious benefits with customer service and effective, spoken English. The Philippines clearly has a much closer affinity to western cultures and spoken English than in India, the critical reason why customer service has thrived so well in this country recently. People, regardless of the culture or language used, want and need to feel understood when calling customer service. The Philippines, having been liberated from Spanish colonial rule by the United States, remained a US protectorate long after the Spanish American War. The Philippines is much more closely aligned both linguistically and culturally with the US than are India and its neighbours which existed under Britain’s colonial influence. To this end, one cannot look upon all English-speaking markets as one market. Winston Churchill correctly opined when he said, “The United States and The United Kingdom…two great countries separated by a common language.”
What are the key takeaway solutions from this overview about outsourcing and culture, and improving marketing in customer-facing content?
- Providers need to understand that effective marketing is a fundamental tool to a successful sales process.
- Providers need to recognise the importance of effective English, written and verbal, when interfacing with new clients. Best to have marketing content written, or at a minimum edited, by someone from the targeted sales geography to resolve any cultural or language issues.
- Proofreading written customer-facing documents is one of the most cost-effective, and often under-utilised, marketing and branding essentials, and should be implemented with any and all content before going public.
- Marketing collateral should not attempt to be “one size fits all”, but tailored to achieve the desired impact. If it is not written with an emphasis on the targeted geography and culture, the buyer will rapidly tune out.
- Offshore sales and marketing professionals should be able to work at a native speaking level regardless of the geography.
- Providers need to learn to focus on service “benefits” and not service “features” to make their marketing material more effective. If they cannot articulate benefits in quantifiable terms, then the prospective buyer will likely not see them. In turn, seeing no value, low cost will be seen as the only value.
Effective marketing and communication from offshore providers are strategic keys to growing in an increasingly competitive industry. Consequently, buyers and providers understanding the many cultural issues with outsourcing is critical for both parties to be successful. As Malcolm Gladwell has noted in many of his books about culture, “geography is everything”.
About the Authors
James S. Hill (Lead Author) is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Publishing Services with Deanta Global, a leading publishing outsourcing vendor in Chennai, India. Hill has over 20 years of publishing experience with senior positions in editorial, production, sales, marketing, and business development in trade, academic, professional, and STM publishing. He has an MA in English from Oklahoma State University. Hill has also published popular articles about publishing outsourcing and using LinkedIn as a sales and marketing tool with leading international journals.
Thom Mead is a globally known leader in the outsourcing industry. Thom has been head of Sales and/or Marketing for many well-known companies, such as ACS, Unisys, EXLservice, and Firstsource. Thom was awarded “Best in the Industry” twice in his business career. He was also awarded, “Best Marketer” from among more than 1,000 marketing professionals at while at EDS. Thom has been a judge for the Outsourcing Malaysia Awards, spoken worldwide at conferences and seminars, has appeared on CNBC and has been frequently quoted in the media, market research and professional publications regarding Marketing, Sales, outsourcing and offshoring.
Carola Copland gained her reputation as thought leader and Subject Matter Expert on outsourcing business over a 13-year career in an American Fortune 50 Global IT company. She has experience in consulting, sales support, contract management, Shared Services and Delivery Centre start-up and operations. Carola left Germany in 2005; since then she has been living and working in Switzerland, Hungary and the UK. As a fully qualified lawyer with additional qualifications in IT and Project Management she enjoys interdisciplinary thinking and problem-solving, working in multi-cultural and cross-functional teams. Carola is active in key professional and leadership organisations, building up industry efficiency frameworks for the German Outsourcing Association (GOA) and the Nordic IT Outsourcing Association (ITOSDA).