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Beach Breaks and Battered Women: International Business in Mexico and Belize with Craig Handley

Craig Handley

Battered women and Beach breaks. Who would have thought that those are major problems in international business? Craig Handley, CEO of ListenTrust, a $150M call center company, talks about many cultural and business challenges working in Mexico and Belize. These include motivators for weekend work, commission vs. salary, focus on family and acculturation plus mentoring to grow entrepreneurs. And Craig’s background will amaze you.


Craig’s journey

The difference between American culture focuses on money, as opposed to other cultures focused on family.

How to enter a new country, a new market that doesn’t match what you already know about the USA market.

If you had the chance to give your past self some current advice, what would you tell yourself?

Craig Handley Bio

Craig Handley is an author of a best-selling book called Hired to Quit. He is a musician who expects to write music for artists all over the world, and he is a bit of a comedian who has done Stand Up on Broadway in NYC.

He also moonlights as CEO of his company, ListenTrust, which was named #1 in Business Products and Service (no. 27 overall) on Inc. Magazine’s 500/1000 list. ListenTrust is a call center doing about $150M in sales, answers hundreds of thousands of call center and lead-generation calls, and employs close to 1000 awesome people.

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Full Transcript

Hello everyone, and welcome to Global Gurus, where every Friday we explore stories of international business and speak with industry leaders operating around the world. I am your host, Phillip Auerbach of Auerbach International. Thank you for joining us. 

If you are tuning in for the first time, we start each podcast with a running segment called “Faux Pas Fridays,” where we explore funny bloopers or mistranslations that do not quite convey the professional image that your organization wants to project. So, for example, our guest will be speaking of Mexico, so I’m using an example from Mexico. A sign in an Acapulco hotel said in English: “The manager has personally passed all the water served here.”

So, today’s guest is Craig Handley, and Craig is hard to describe, but let me try anyway. He’s the author of a best-selling book called Hired to Quit, and he’s a musician who expects to write music for the art of the outer soul all over the world. He’s also a bit of a comedian who has done stand-up on Broadway in New York. He also moonlights as CEO of his company, ListenTrust, which was named number one in business products and services out of 27 overall by Inc. Magazine’s 500 of 1000 list. ListenTrust is a call center that generates approximately $100 million in sales per year by answering hundreds of thousands of call-related lead generation calls and employing close to 1,000 wonderful people.

On the personal side, Craig has cage-dived with great white sharks and has repelled down Table Mountain in South Africa. He has also driven  the Baja 500 trail in Mexico and has hiked through the jungles of Malaysia. In Iceland, he snowmobiled across a live volcano, swam in the blue lagoon, and dived into the famous Frigid fissure. The dive takes place in a crack between two continental plates, making it the only dive site in the world where you can do so. It’s also the fifth civilian in the world ever to jump out of a plane over 32,000 feet. He’s hung out on Necker Island with Richard Branson. He met Ringo Starr and bumped into Paul McCartney before Security escorted him back to his table while he was trying to get a selfie. And in Calgary, he had his scarf blessed while meeting the Dalai Lama.

He has partied with Akon and Snoop Dogg and many other celebrities who asked him for his autograph because they happened to think that Craig starred as Vikings with Game of Thrones and he did not quite correct their thinking.

He served five years in the US Army infantry during the first Iraq War, leaving with an honorable discharge. Craig studied voice and piano in college and has written and produced hundreds of songs, from rap to pop, from ballads to humorous parodies, and even opened for Coolio and hosted the Adult Entertainment Awards.

He once turned down a record deal because it would have been a pay cut from his profitable business, and the required tour schedule didn’t leave him enough time for his business or his family. So welcome, Craig. Thank you for joining us.

Yeah, you’re welcome. Excited to be here! That’s a long intro, who wrote that? It was it me? 

Well, if you, yeah, I embellished a bit, but yes, it’s quite long and quite impressive.

What’s funny is you talk about saying things wrong in other countries, and I have a little story around that, you know, as far as doing things wrong. I didn’t know much Spanish when I went and built this big business in Mexico, and I knew Caliente was hot and I knew “muy” was very hot.  And in a town in Mexico, it gets to be about 127 degrees. So, I was walking around my call center talking to employees, and I’d be going, “Oh yo, is muy caliente! Yo muy caliente! And if anybody listening to this understands Mexican slang, I was supposed to be saying, “I’m very hot.” Instead, what I was saying to everybody I was talking to was that I’m very horny.  

And of course, I’m the owner of a business talking to 20-year-old girls who are taking my phone calls. And boys and everybody. Finally, one of my managers said, “Craig, you own the company. Are you sure it’s wise to be telling all these young girls that you’re a very horny old man? They’re like, I mean, they might think that you’re hitting on them.” Oh my God. I was so embarrassed. I mean, you just didn’t know. I mean, I thought it was I’m very hot, not I’m very horny. Hey, I’m working. Oh well, well, that’s why I got so many strange looks.

Sorry, say it again.

I asked why I was getting so many strange looks.

Yes, Sir, I’m sure that’s amazing. That’s great. And that’s exactly a wonderful example of how, you know, a simple mistranslation or simple misuse of a word can have a different meaning. That’s quite unprofessional in that case, especially from the CEO.

Yeah, yeah, I think some of those young women may have felt like they were obligated, you know, and I was trying to be nice, of course. And I’m probably causing problems, and I didn’t even know it.

Well, it’s wonderful. It’s a great way to have a great story, a great example of a cultural blooper that can happen. And you know what? We all have to be mindful of doing international business. Tell me a bit about your background, how you grew up, and how you gained your global business experience but also your travel experiences.

Well, you know, the reality is that I started being a phone operator like I was an agent in a phone center. And I got really good. I had really good numbers, and so the company I was working for took my script and my recording, and they came, they’d write it all down, and they used everything that I said to get all of their agents better results.

And so, I went from being an agent on the phone to being a scriptwriter. And then when I would train people on how to use my script with up tones, down tones, agitation, modulation, and emphasis, when I started to train on how to use voice inflection to create a higher level of success, I became a scriptwriter for a sales trainer and other call centers around the globe. I started getting hired all over the world by people wanting me to come work in their call center and work on their scripting and train their agents on voice inflection. So, I was doing that, and at one point, I thought I should just build my center and when I was kind of having that thought, a friend of mine was like, “You should build it. You know, in Mexico to service the US Hispanic market.” And I thought about that. I’ve always been a big believer that little hinges swing big doors. And in English, when we would take phone calls from Minnesota. I would talk with a, you know, hey, thanks for calling, but you know, I would just put the right accent on it. Or in the South, you talk a little slower, and make sure you try to mirror that inflection as much as you can. That adds 5 to 10 points to your close rate. Well, so 70% of America is Mexican American. I thought I wanted those five points, that five-point closure rate, and so I thought I wanted those five points. So I went to Tijuana, I went to Monterrey, I went to Mexico City, I went to Juarez. I, you know, traveled to quite a few places in Mexico and ended up in Maceio, where they had about a million people, and they had zero calls.

And so, I knew I would be able to build something from the ground up, and as you read in the bio, within three years we had almost 1,000 people. And, uh, you know, we were doing about $150 million in sales and about $500,000, and, you know, it was almost like everything had taken ten years to create an overnight success. And so that’s kind of how I got there. And of course, when I got there, I had all those things you talked about, all the cultural things.

I had to learn my lessons about cultural differences the way everybody else does. I just had to fail. You know, so that’s how I built it. And you know, I created a script change with six different call centers and I charge them $50,000 each. To fix their FAQs, most FAQs and call centers are it’s this, this, OK with an up tone, and that leads 30 to 50% of your customers to hang up, and 30% of those people call back in to reorder because they felt like they had to hang up the way the voice inflection ended the call. So, I fixed the scripts by saying on every FAQ, did you want to go ahead and play shorter? Did you need a little bit more information? We eliminated all the duplicate calls. Well, I brought that strategy to six centers. I charged 50 grand each, had 300 grand, and that was my seed money to start my call center.

Wow, that’s a fantastic story. It’s incredible. So, do you consider your call center your biggest global success?

I’m building a new business right now called Social Close and I’ve gone from zero to 50 employees in under a year. And we’ll see where that one goes. But that one has a list of people waiting to work with it as well, and so that looks like it could be my greatest global success in the future, but right now I guess that’s, you know, it’s a business that we’ve got up for sale. We’re looking to get around 18 to 20 million for it, so yeah. So, I think that’s probably the biggest success I’ve had.

That’s great. You shared with us the cultural Spanish blunder of “muy caliente.” Are there any other business blunders that you either know of or have heard about that teach a lesson that our audience could learn from?

Well, look at Mexico. Another example is that you pay a minimum wage in Mexico, a salary, and then your minimum wage covers salary, benefits, and taxes. And we paid a really low base salary and then a high commission. And early on in our business, we once had a team of about 20 agents that were trading their shifts with other employees. And so, they didn’t come to work for four or five weeks, and they went to the beach every day. We paid their base salary and their taxes and their benefits, but they were giving away all their hours to other agents who were making the commissions. And so, I had about 20 people on the payroll for about five weeks that hadn’t set foot in the building. Well, because of the way Mexican law works, if I were going to fire them, I had to pay them like three months’ severance to fire them even though they hadn’t shown up for five weeks.

So, I retained all 20 of those employees, but I made sure that they were responsible for cleaning the bathrooms and doing most of the janitorial work. That was their new role, and I was able to get all of them to quit, which meant I didn’t have to pay the severance. So, I had to learn that those were things that could happen in Mexican culture. I also tried to pay a higher salary, and the performance suffered because the employees were happy with the salary and just wanted to spend time with their families.

So, I’ve had challenges in building comp plans and bonus structures, at least in the beginning, because I had to learn that the people in Mexico care more about going to the beach on the weekends than they do about making extra money. America is pretty money-focused, and so that was a big learning lesson for me, that I had to build incentives that supported someone’s family to make it worthwhile for them to come to work, so all of my commission plans now become you don’t just get a bonus per sale, to qualify, you have to work 40 hours, so none of your bonuses kick in until you have 40 hours. And that was something I had to add in because people would just not show up on the weekend, so they’d get their big bonus with their commissions after work in 28 hours, and they didn’t feel like they needed any more money, they just needed more time with their families.

And of course, I’m a phone center, so I have more on my calls on the weekend than I do during the week. So, I needed these people on the weekend. So, I said, “Well, great, you can go to the beach, but then I’m not going to pay you as much. So, I had to create a multi-layered bonus plan and commission plan that not only benefited the company but also benefited the employees, and so they made a lot more money by working 40 hours. But I had to make sure it was balanced out based on the people that were really committed to the company versus the ones that were kind of committed.

Does that make sense?

Yeah, that’s fascinating. You had to experiment, as many businesses do, to see what works or what doesn’t. That is undoubtedly true in American business. But working internationally, yes, we’re dealing with different value systems, and as you said, Americans tend to focus on money. You know, this is cheaper, this is at a discount, this is on sale, or I’m going to make more money by doing this, this, whatever, whereas other cultures have other priorities. And it brought Latin America closer. It’s more about family than anything else.

Yeah, it was even an adjustment in the way that we sell in the scripting. And of course, over 14 years of being an international business, things have changed where when we first started marketing, a lot of the Hispanics were first and second-generation Mexicans, so they were looking at Spanish-only websites and Google Translate was translating stuff, but it was all not necessarily the right version of the translation.

So, if they could speak any English, they started leaning towards the English version of the websites. So, as we’ve started to market to the second and third generations of Hispanics, we’ve had to switch the way that we speak to people and target people even further. We’ve had to be able to focus on US Hispanics on English websites and give them an option as to which language they want to speak.

So, we’ve had to expand our English divisions and learn as the market shifted and changed in the United States, where we do a lot of our marketing. We had to change the way that we speak to people and target people. So, it’s been interesting to know it hasn’t been dull. Every year is a little bit different, you know, based on dealing with international values.

That’s fascinating. It’s fascinating how you, you know, adjust to that and learn from it.

It has to be.

Yeah, it’s called, we call it acculturation.

Acculturation, yes, very much so, and interestingly, that’s a word that I use, but a lot of people don’t understand that. That word comes from sociology and is about  how you adjust a system or a marketing campaign or translation or the whole business approach according to the target culture.

So, if you were going to enter, let’s say, a new country or a new market that doesn’t match what you already know or what you’ve learned, either what you know in the US or what you’ve learned in Mexico, how would you approach it?

I think you have to take time to learn about that country. Again, we have so many failures. We tried to open a second center in Belize, and we were there for a year.

I’m sorry. Belize?


And it was interesting because what you find If you’re doing sales, having someone who understands American culture is more important than anything else because in the format that we use to get the results that we get, which usually exceed what everybody else gets, our agents are trained to personalize and disarm in the greeting. That means you’re having a couple of, you know, maybe one to two minutes of conversation around where they live, or hey, how about the Los Angeles Rams winning the Super Bowl? What did you think of that?  

I didn’t have the acculturation. They didn’t know what was going on in the US. They didn’t follow the NFL. They didn’t follow the NBA or Major League Baseball. So, they couldn’t have these common conversations, which ended up hurting the close rate and conversion rate: The other thing about Belize is that it’s a highly sexually charged culture where the women outnumber the men by something like 12:5. So, there are typically a lot of men who are very abusive, so you have to play into the fact that you’re going to have females come in with black eyes, and that could be up recently. And so, we had to add to our culture some counseling around women who are abused. And, and, you know, it became, “Geez, we should.” We should buy a hotel so that these women can leave their partners. But it’s just, it’s just the way of life in Belize. And of course, that creates a sexually charged environment where the women, as one of my managers said to me, one of her employees wanted to know if I was dating her best friend, or, sorry, her boyfriend’s best friend, and she thought she should be able to date him even though she had a boyfriend. So, she hired someone to beat up this girl on her team because she couldn’t beat her up herself because she was the manager.

I had to explain to her that that’s not exactly right either, you can’t beat up or hire someone to beat up somebody on your team because you want to fool around with her boyfriend. Does her boyfriend even want to fool around with you? She goes, “Well, I don’t know, but I have a better chance if she’s out of the picture.” And it’s jjust such a competition. Women compete for any of the available men. The men are there, and so the environment is focused. They’re very hyper-focused on a lot of gossip and a lot of relationship stuff, and as a result, things like my payroll weren’t right one time in a year, every week I had to fix it. Every Monday morning I’d have 17 people lined up complaining about their pay, and it was inevitably that the person who did payroll made mistakes. So, I was like, “Man, Belize, they’re not going to get there.”

I don’t think they’re going to be able to provide the level of support and talent that I needed, so we closed it and stayed in Mexico. So, I’ve had multiple experiences, so I guess the long-winded answer is really to do some time, take some time, and research what you’re looking for.

If you’re looking for sales, I would say stay, you know, near the shore of Mexico. Canada has a lot of values in American culture, and they’re probably a little cheaper than US centers. You’ve got to understand your culture if you’re selling. Customer service well, I think customer service can be tougher than sales lead generation, outbound or outbound. You know, the Philippines could be a great country, you know, but there are great, great countries to work with, and India I avoid, some of the southern, more southern Spanish-speaking countries, again, don’t have the level of acculturation. I don’t know, I guess I just have to learn everything I can about the environment, about the people, and about the customs that they have for the holidays. I mean, when you work in the Philippines, their morning is our night. For them, 7:00 AM is midnight. That’s when the partying starts. That’s when people go out drinking at 7:00 AM because they work with so many U.S. companies that their night is our day and that’s when they’re busy.

So, you have to adjust to that type of environment. So, all kinds of things. The more that you, I mean, there isn’t any clear-cut way to know that you’re making the right decision until you dive in and start to learn. You know, really from the school of Hard Knocks. So, do as much research as you can.

That’s fascinating. When you talked about the tremendous disparity in Belize between women and men, is it because so many men have immigrated or what? What’s the reason that it’s like 10:01?

I don’t. I don’t know really. I guess it’s just how the population, a lot of it is the gangs. There’s a lot of gang fighting, so a lot of young men are killed. If you’re in the inner city of Belize. in a year, one of my employees’ sons was killed, or a two-year-old son, by a stray bullet.

And so, I had to deal with that within the center because everybody felt that this other guy was a former gang member and he had turned to the police. And they used to call him the Godfather, and he worked for me, for about seven or eight months, some 13-year-old kid put 12 bullets in him while he was playing basketball because he was considered a high target, and if you got a kill there, it put you higher up in the gang. And uh, and so, I mean, we’ve had, and then we had two people shot right in front of our building. So, you come to work Monday morning and you’ll still see the blood in the streets. And uh, and so it’s just really like I said, they’re gang activities, there is a lot of it. They’ve got 13-year-old kids killing people at an ATM for 100 bucks. So yeah, so I guess there’s a lot that you’ve had to deal with. I wasn’t expecting to have to deal with it. With it, we were still fairly successful, but, So, you know, it was a lot to deal with, so anyway.

That’s amazing. I’ve been to Belize twice, but one was once as a tourist and many, many decades ago when I worked for an international development company, like a nonprofit, Yeah, in development. So I never encountered…

I mean in the islands. Yeah, the blue hole shark alley with diving is great. If you go out to the islands, it’s beautiful. There are some amazing ruins but just stay out of Belize City. I happen to have a call center there in Belize City. There were so many amazing people. It’s so many people that need help, and for me, who feels like I’m a bit of a humanitarian, it felt like I was handcuffed. I felt like I couldn’t help people. You know, you’d have a woman come in and you know she just got beat up, she’s wearing sunglasses, going back to the same guy because she doesn’t have a place to go, and she should have a choice. And so, you feel helpless too, and I still, you know, wish I could. I would love to hire some people there too, you know, work at home or whatever. But there are some people that you just can’t help. You know they’re going to help themselves before you can lend a hand.

I’m sorry. Yeah, very, very true. A very good lesson. Uhm, that sort of leads me to my next question, which is, if you had the chance to give your past self some current advice, what would you tell yourself, based on all your experiences?

I would say to write things down more often. Dream bigger. I think there’s energy in the world. I don’t know whether it’s God, Buddha, aliens, or whatever, but I would tell myself to have faith in that energy and to go where you feel the most and just believe in it. I tell young people. I pretend as if I can talk to my 20-year-old. Because I do a lot of mentoring and coaching with younger people, I tell them the same thing all the time. Whatever you want to do in life as a 20-year-old man or woman, you can do it. All you’ve got to do is focus on it and build a network around it, and within 20 years, some people within your network will have made it.

If you’ve been friends with them for 20 years, they’re going to take you along. They’re going to give you the blueprint that you need to be successful. So, trust the people around you and share everything with them: all of your dreams, all of your hopes, and create a network that believes in people at a young age. Don’t prejudge.

Believe in everybody and support their dreams. And some of those people will make it. And they’ll support you in your dream because you supported them when nobody else did.

So, I guess you know that that’s one of the primary pieces of advice I always try to give young people.

That’s beautiful, and I’ve never heard anyone say it so eloquently before. That particular lesson is wonderful. Before we close, is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

I’m happy to share whatever you need to know. I know you sent me some questions over and I kind of looked through them, but I usually like to run on the fly. I don’t like to prejudge a call. I like to be my authentic self, so I’m open to talking about whatever you want to talk about.

Similar to what you were just talking about, what advice would you give to a small business owner who can’t quite crack six figures or to a seven-figure business owner trying to scale to the 10s or hundreds of millions?

Get mentors, get them. There’s, there are groups like how we met Phillip, you know, in Bellwether, which is a secret society, but there’s, you know, there are 1,300 entrepreneurs within that group.Find mentors and be humble enough to know that you can’t do it alone, that every superhero has a superhero family.

You know, when the Flash gets stuck, he calls Superman or Supergirl, or you know that when people get stuck, they have somebody to call whom they can ask for help. And so, I mean, maybe one piece of advice would be to find a mentor and explain to them where your challenges are. For me, I can see, you know, five or six holes in any business and it gives you solutions in about that much time. There are people around the world that have been successful, and what they want to do is give back. I love seeing people succeed. So, if I see where you are and what you’re trying to crack, I usually come up with a pretty good solution.

That’s fantastic. Well, your insights have been truly wonderful, outstanding, and remarkable, especially about Mexico and Belize and cultural issues that a lot of people don’t necessarily think about or consider before they go into international business and that are extremely critical.

They think it’s cheap. Oh, it’s Let’s go here. But it can be very expensive. Another example is one of my clients was in the Philippines with their business and they were doing appointment setting. They were getting 12 appointments a day and the show rate was around 30%.

I’m sorry, what rate?

 Around 30% was the number of people that showed up for a plan. So, it said they’d set, let’s say, 12 appointments in a day. Well, only four people would show up out of those appointments that were set, and they were probably paid $8.00 an hour in the Philippines. You know, 7 or 8 bucks an hour with 15 an hour? However, we do 27 appointments per day with a 70% rate of appearance. And so, sometimes spending less is more expensive. And it’s only because of acculturation.

To develop trust, you must be able to establish rapport, so we go through a process with our agents to ensure that they understand that rapport-building is the most important skill. But they just don’t have that skill level in the Philippines or India or even belief or even, you know, Colombia or Argentina or any place it has to be from. For me, I look at near-shore facilities that understand American culture. And that’s where I look to build solutions because it’s a little bit less expensive. If you’re doing it right, it’s not a ton like some people might think, like 4 bucks an hour or something like that. But for talent, we’re at 6 to 8 bucks an hour, you know, for an hourly wage for employees. If you want talent, you can hire anybody. But if you want somebody with a clean accent or no accent, along with sales skills and the ability to execute, you’re going to pay a little bit more for those people. But those are the same people that would cost 17 to 25 dollars an hour in the US. So, for me, you know, I think you have to look at expense and success. It’s not as obvious as you think it is. Sometimes you’re spending less, but you’re failing at your job, so you’re not getting over the hump because you decided to save money.

So, hopefully, that helps a few people.

Thank you.

That’s another wonderful insight. Again, it’s an example of how Americans tend to focus on money as the primary criterion instead of looking at the broader issues.

Sure, value. 

Again, thank you very much.

Thank you for joining us today. This has been a conversation with Craig Handley, and this is Philip Auerbach. Please return next week for another installment of Global Gurus and their stories about international business.

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