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While English may be the language of international business, politics, and economics, it’s not exclusively used everywhere. Wealth is aggregating beyond the global West, with thriving markets and burgeoning groups of affluent peoples who reasonably expect to be addressed in their native language. And the number of these potential clients is going to grow as the redistribution of the world’s wealth continues.
When language barriers and cultural differences inevitably arise while attracting and communicating with international clients, what are the best strategies to overcome them? Here are nine pieces of advice shared by two luxury agents well-acquainted with international deals.
1. Become a bona fide expert in international real estate
Once you decide you want to specialize in this area, commit to honing your expertise before you dive in. “There are licenses, certifications, and further education opportunities that will better qualify you for this field and differentiate you in the eyes of your would-be clients,” says Sandy Seekins, Professional Real Estate Agent with LIV Sotheby’s International Realty.
2. Understand the do’s and don’ts of your clients’ culture
You need a nuanced and sophisticated knowledge of your international clients’ cultural norms. “I have traveled extensively in China, India, and other Asian countries — and although I don’t speak Mandarin or Hindi, I learned about their local cultures and customs,” says Harry Nasser, Senior Global Real Estate Advisor and Associate Broker at Sotheby’s International Realty – East Side Manhattan Brokerage.
3. Cultivate a working knowledge of the clients’ language
Learning another language isn’t easy. But if you want to demonstrate true excellence in global real estate, then gaining a functional facility in your target clients’ language is an asset. “Tools such as Duolingo and Babylon are great resources to familiarize yourself with the fundamentals of a language,” advises Seekins.
4. Select translation tools and services that work for you
“I’m fluent in Portuguese, French, and Spanish, and I also have working knowledge in Italian, Arabic, and Hebrew,” says Nasser. “I often work with Chinese buyers, and in the past, I always needed an interpreter. That all changed one day when a buyer from China brought an ‘electronic translator’ which allowed us to communicate directly.” Nowadays, such tools are widespread. Duolingo and Babylon can both assist with translation in real time, but there are also apps dedicated to this purpose, such as Translate Me.
5. Know the necessary documentation down to the letter
“Generally speaking, the property search and transaction process is the same regardless of what language you speak,” notes Seekins. “The difficulty lies in translating the documentation to ensure the client is not only understanding the process, but also is getting the representation they’re looking for. Being deeply knowledgeable about all the required contracts and forms is a huge bonus, and part of our essential fiduciary responsibility to our global clients.”
6. Be patient when it comes to complex industry concepts
While buying and selling a property might have commonalities across much of the world, every real estate region and market has its own dynamics — and as Nasser explains, this is where language barriers can complicate matters. “For example, in some cultures, bidding wars are non-existent, and it takes time for buyers to accept that other people are competing for the same property,” he says. International buyers may be unfamiliar with concepts that are seen as commonplace in the U.S. For example, Nasser has had to help clients understand the difference between co-ops and condos. He notes that when speaking different languages, it’s critical to make sure nothing is lost in translation.
7. Stay informed on the economics of your target market
Though it’s not necessarily related to language or culture barriers, Seekins reminds agents that when working with international buyers, it’s important to be fluent in more than just languages. “You also have to be fluent in the economy, currency, and exchange rates of their market. These have a major impact on investment performance when buying and selling overseas,” she says.
8. Collaboration with another agent can help cultivate trust
“I strongly advise agents to partner with colleagues who not only speak the client’s language but also understand their culture,” says Nasser. “When I had a buyer from China coming to see one of my listings, I asked a Chinese agent to help me when I first showed the apartment. The buyers immediately felt comfortable and we closed the sale.”
9. To keep your eyes on one prize, it’s better to specialize
While incredibly rewarding, mastering an international market — along with its languages and cultures — is complex, and deserves the time and attention it’s due. “As agents, we need to specialize,” says Seekins. “Target an area and an audience that’s relevant to your region, as it’s better to be exceptional at one thing rather than mediocre at many.”
By being properly prepared and having the right tools at your disposal, you’ll be ready to bridge any divides as you expand into international real estate.