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The Importance of Cultural Literacy For Builders And New Home Sales Agents

Oct 17, 2017

Posted by

Tom Burk

Tom Burk, MBA, MIRM, Real Estate Broker, is Branch Manager of Coldwell Banker, Barbara Sue Seal Properities in Portland, Oregon. Burk has managed eight real estate offi ces in North Read more

Knowledge of a buyer’s values is key to differentiate you from your competition. Genuine effort to demonstrate your character will speak volumes for you and will go a long way in establishing the trust and respect that is absolutely essential to the multicultural sales process.

The trip back from the airport was always a time to reflect—normally, to commit some celebratory thought after another successful house hunting trip with clients. This time, however, the occasion did not warrant celebration. It was time to contemplate a dismal three days—three days full of miscommunication, tension, and failure. The objective was to find the Lee family a new home in their new city. But in fact, they were flying home to Minneapolis with bad feelings about our market and suspicions about my competence.

Prior to the Lees’ arrival, I had dedicated two conference calls to the qualification process. I provided them with a relocation package which was meant to introduce them to our real estate and new home market. I even interviewed builder sales reps to ensure that their new home product had the features and options that Mr. and Mrs. Lee had described to me as important. Where then, did this train go off the tracks? I wasn’t sure but I was dedicated to finding out.

The Lees are Chinese immigrants of Cantonese extraction. I had to admit, my experience with Chinese buyers was limited and it appeared that this inexperience had cost me a sale, three days of my time, and an opportunity to add a new happy client to my sphere of influence.

The above scenario took place in 1985. Today, I cannot imagine any Realtor® or new home sales representative that has not dealt with many multiethnic buyers. America is changing; in fact, many people are calling it the “New America,” an America which has become a cultural mosaic so rich and diverse that multiethnic interaction is a daily occurrence in all parts of our great nation.

Is cultural literacy important for builders and new home sales people? Yes; nothing could be more important. As sales people we are expected to be professional communicators. We are the distribution channel in the new home value chain. We are expected to create value for everyone along that chain including our builders and our buyers. The value chain in America of the 21st Century is multicultural, interconnected, and increasingly interpenetrative.

You may ask “what impact is the multicultural consumer having on our market in America?” The fact is that minority markets are growing in numbers so quickly that the combined segments will soon outnumber the current majority population segment. These ethnic consumers are powerful, young, and affluent.


Just how big are these ethnic markets?  Hispanic youth have overtaken African Americans as the largest ethnic youth group in America. Nearly one out of every four consumers is of Hispanic descent.

Hispanic America continues to grow in regions such as California, Texas, and Florida; but it is also growing at a record-breaking pace in Arkansas, Oregon, and South Carolina. Today’s Hispanics are better educated, much more affluent, and are choosing to acculturate and not assimilate. This alone means we must increase our cultural competency as sales people and builders. Salsa now outsells ketchup in this country and there is now tangible evidence that the Hispanic population in America is growing at several times the rate of growth of the overall population. Asians are the fastest-growing ethnic group in America, outpacing even the Hispanic population. This market is younger than the general market, has the highest level of education as compared to all other consumers, and has the highest average household incomes in the United States.

Immigrants from the Middle East, India, and Eastern Europe are also having a major impact on consumerism as they add their own non-trivial contributions to the new American cultural mosaic.



Given the above information, we as new home salespeople can create more value for our builders and achieve more success for ourselves. What could we create if we dedicated ourselves to attaining an enhanced level of competency as we are asked to communicate and negotiate across cultures? In retrospect, it was my lack of cultural competence that harmed my relationship with Mr. and Mrs. Lee. My insensitivity to the cultural differences and my focus upon the transaction and not on the relationship is what had eliminated any possibility of a sale.

Salespeople that understand the issues of cultural diversity will improve enormously their chances of success in today’s multicultural sales environment. American values such as directness, openness, and independence often carry over into American business communications. Unfortunately, these values have the potential of clashing with Eastern cultural norms. American assertiveness is often looked upon as brashness or egoism. My ignorance of the Lee’s values cost me a sale and potentially a great client. Can any of us afford to let poor communication and misunderstandings get in the way of our sales performance?

When selling and negotiating across cultures one must be aware of the dimensions of culture. These include language, values, time, and space orientations, and non-verbal communications.

The successful multicultural salesperson must be capable of adapting to the values of other cultures while at the same time maintaining his or her own values. Flexibility is paramount in the dynamic environment of the American cultural mosaic. In many ethnic societies, family leaders have much more responsibility than to what many Americans are accustomed. It is often their responsibility to maintain homes for the extended family within the matrimonial home. For this reason, the home buying decision is often a collaborative effort. You may be fielding questions from the male head of the household but everyone contributes to the decision.



Jessica Chan of RE/MAX Realty Professionals, when interviewed for this article, stressed that the most common mistake that non-Asian agents make when dealing with Asian clients is trying to move along too quickly. She stressed that the establishment of trust is paramount to the transaction. Asian buyers, she stated, want to see variety, they want to explore product at all levels of their price range, and to take their time when doing it. They will rarely reveal their complete financial capabilities but will soften their resistance to a salesperson when that salesperson demonstrates over time the patience and caring required to earn their trust.

It is also critically important not to make assumptions regarding your ethnic buyer. Hispanics, for instance, come from dozens of countries from Spain to Latin America to the Caribbean. There exist common cultural similarities, but more often than not, customs do not translate across nationalities. Nancy Edmiston, MIRM, suggests that you determine from where your Hispanic buyer originates. Ask the question: “I like to travel in my spare time, where does your family come from?” This question demonstrates your cultural sensitivity and can avoid embarrassing assumptions on your part.

The name of the game in selling is always the creation of value. Great selling communication is measured by the impression we leave in the customer’s mind. It is about taking a customer’s look at quality. If you and your product resonate with a solution to a problem they have and if it meets with a measure that has meaning to them, then you represent perceived value. This basically earns you the right to talk to the customer about your builder’s offering. By increasing your cultural competence you will create solutions to your customer’s purchasing problem.

As I so clearly demonstrated with the Lees, it is easy to create a misunderstanding due to ignorance of cultural protocol. Knowledge of your buyer’s values is the key to what differentiates you from your competition. Genuine effort to demonstrate your character will speak volumes for you and will go a long way to establishing the trust and respect that is absolutely essential to the multicultural sales process.

The following table will help provide you with insight that can enhance the perceived value that you create for clients of all ethnicities. These suggestions are generalizations, however. It must be understood that these ancient ethnic societies often have countless dialects, customs, and cultures within each population segment. No protocol is universal and no action universally appropriate.



Population Segment

Things That Will Get You In Trouble

Actions That Will Endear You




East Indian

Don’t discuss business too soon.  Avoid pressure tactics.  Avoid being submissive. Do not squeeze the hand and avoid eye contact when a female spouse is present. Avoid wearing shorts or dressing too casually.

Establish rapport. Social conversations take time.   Let your counterpart begin the business discussion.  Tone of the conversation should be serious, subdued, and business like.  Shaking hands at the end of the meeting is acceptable.




East Indian & Mid-East

Don’t pass or take anything with the left hand.

 Always point with your thumb or full hand.



Greet men warmly. Greet women only with hello unless the woman extends her hand first.  Acknowledge all members of the group including children


Avoid rigidity in negotiations. Do not pass a business card with one hand.  Avoid appearing impatient when closing.  Do not demonstrate an ambivalent attitude.

Pass business card directly – face up with both hands.  Receive business card and read it respectively.  Be sensitive while disagreeing.


Avoid interrupting when they are speaking.  Don’t casually slap a brochure into their hands.

Greet warmly, shake hands with a family members.  Make good eye contact.


Don’t assume customers understand the building and buying process.

Listen to everyone in the group.