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Listen and be curious: how to help clients from different cultures


Asking questions and listening are paramount to servicing clients from diverse cultural backgrounds, according to an executive.

By Malavika Santhebennur 10 minute read

BusinessDepot director Lielette Calleja says her first task with SME owners from different cultures, religions and faiths is familiarising herself with them as human beings.

“When I first sit with them, I don’t even talk about their business. I get to know them as a person,” she said ahead of the inaugural Women in Finance Summit 2023.

“We hit it off because I learn about their family life, how long they’ve lived in Australia, who they live with and who they have back home. I ask if they’re responsible for providing for their family back home.

“When you get to the nitty-gritty of understanding what their financial position is like, you add value. Then, we talk about how we can help with their business.”

Ms Calleja will speak on a panel at the Women in Finance Summit about how to navigate clients’ cultural and religious practices and expectations to provide tailored services.

Connect with them as humans

Researching the clients’ cultural and professional backgrounds is key. This can be done by exploring their websites, LinkedIn profiles, mutual connections, and hobbies.

“For example, I had a client with a Torres Strait background. On his website, he’d written that his mum was his biggest influence. I told him that my mum is my biggest influence and asked him to tell me more about his mum,” Ms Calleja said.

“I try to find something that’s relatable. I need them to trust me so I can build rapport.”

Ms Calleja, whose firm provides SMEs with services such as accounting, bookkeeping, financial planning, estate planning, and succession plans, said having multiple touchpoints with clients is critical to understanding cultural nuances.

“I tell my clients from different cultural groups that I’m curious and intrigued. I ask them questions. I ask if it’s okay if I show up to their office wearing certain attire. But I also tell them that I want to be respectful of their culture, so I tell them that they don’t have to answer my questions if they don’t want to.

“My clients love that I’ve put myself out there and apologised before asking the questions. They appreciate that I’ve asked those questions with the intent to understand. You need to ask permission to ask certain questions.”

Trust gives you freedom

These conversations allow Ms Calleja to unearth whether her clients are passionate about their business or if it is “just a means to an end”.

“If they’re not motivated to drive their business forward, it’s my job to invigorate them.”

Building trust gives Ms Calleja the freedom to draw attention to her clients’ wrongdoings so they are compliant, she said.

“When I say to them that they’re not paying their staff appropriately, they trust me,” she said.

“My job is to make sure they’re compliant while maximising the benefits available to them and minimising tax in a legal way. I always say it takes more effort to do the wrong thing than the right thing.”

Broaden your horizon and network

When asked how other women in finance could service clients from diverse cultural backgrounds, Ms Calleja encouraged them to diversify their networks by attending different cultural events.

“Go to things like the Arab or Croatian Chamber of Commerce. Talk to other professionals there about how they deal with the different cultural nuances,” she said.

“Make your network more inclusive rather than just going to your local network or chamber. Meeting people from different backgrounds and cultures is the best education you can receive.”

Implementing processes to handle conflict resolution and setting boundaries in the early stages with clients are also crucial, Ms Calleja added.

“Educate your clients early on how the process works. Tell them how you would handle a situation when things go wrong,” she underscored.

“Whether they agree to work with you is their choice.”

To hear more from Lilette Calleja on how to support clients from diverse backgrounds, come along to the first-ever Women in Finance Summit 2023.

It will be held on Friday, 10 November 2023 at The Star, Sydney.

Click here to book your tickets and don’t miss out!

For more information, including agenda and speakers, click here.

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Malavika Santhebennur


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