Understanding the differences in behaviours and attitudes of clients from different cultures is essential to doing business in today’s multicultural society. It can help you increase your business, serve clients better and build solid, long-term relationships.

Cultural sensitivity is especially important in Canada, where one out of every five people is foreign-born, according to Statistics Canada.

If you are not aware of certain cultural nuances, you risk accidentally offending prospects or clients through your actions or words, says Raymond Yates, financial advisor and senior partner with Save Right Financial Inc. in Brampton, Ont.

“By relating to people in a culturally appropriate manner,” he says, “you stand a better chance of establishing a relationship.”

For example, making direct eye contact with clients from certain Eastern cultures might be considered inappropriate and disrespectful, whereas in Western cultures it is expected.

Some Chinese clients prefer to meet behind closed doors because they place a high value on privacy, says Francis D’Andrade, vice president of private client services at Forstrong Global Asset Management Inc. in Toronto. These clients also look forward to meeting in well-appointed offices, and as a family unit.

He adds that Chinese clients typically dislike the number 4, which is associated with death, but like the number 8, which is generally linked to wealth and prosperity. Therefore, if your office address has the number 4 in it you will not likely attract Chinese clients. Similarly, you should avoid giving Chinese clients account numbers containing the number 4.

Although your academic qualifications may not be terribly important to most Canadian clients, some cultures, including people from Germany and the Caribbean, place a high value on them. “You might not be able to even get a meeting with certain clients if your qualifications are not impressive,” Yates says.

And while you may take a lack of punctuality as a personal slight, Yates says, people from some cultures, such as Latin America and the Caribbean, are “notorious for being late for meetings.” (He jokingly refers to the Jamaican expression “soon come,” which literally means “will arrive soon” but in reality can mean hours later.) Other cultures, such as the Swedish and the Japanese, on the other hand, are very steadfast on punctuality.

Rolling out the welcome mat

While it is important to be aware of these established cultural characteristics and customs, D’Andrade says, you must be careful not to stereotype clients from other cultures. Behaviours and attitudes may change over the generations and many clients of different ethnic backgrounds have adapted to Canadian norms.

Some cultural traits can have a direct bearing on how clients invest. Some groups, for example, are generally more sensitive to risk than other clients. Some are averse to paying fees, while some don’t understand taxes. Indian clients, for example, tend to be more conservative investors, and prefer to invest in tangible assets such as real estate and gold.

If you hope to attract clients from other ethnic groups, there are ways to make your practice more attractive to them. The key is to accept, rather than be fazed by, cultural differences. Here are some tips:

> do your own informal research into the attitudes and behaviours of various cultures;

> attend cultural events and observe behavioural traits;

> seek advice from associates who work with members of these groups;

> assess your office décor to ensure it is appropriate.

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