Working with a small business based outside the U.S. can be challenging, but rewarding
I was working with one of my clients recently. He has a relationship with a small technology company based in Europe. This company had developed an excellent software product that was complementary to a software solution sold by one of the major global software suppliers. While this company had acquired a number of customers in Europe, they were lacking U.S. distribution. At a senior level, the company had executives who had studied in the U.S., but not done business here.
I was working with my client on business and internet strategies. Internet content can be easily created and deployed on a global basis. After a call with the company, we discussed strategies that should be considered when working with a company outside of the U.S.
- Put it in writing. People who speak English as a second language often read English better than they speak it. Assuming that the discussion points need to be shared, it is better that you frame the issues rather than depend on someone else to organize the conversation. After a conversation, follow up with agreements or action items in writing. For key points, ask for affirmation. Sometimes, people don’t like to challenge you on the phone.
- If a point is really important, it might make sense to repeat it in different places in the conversation. Perhaps show it visually in addition to in writing. Suppose you were looking to become the exclusive distributor in a geographic area. At the beginning, note the distribution strategy in writing. However, later on, create a map, that shows your territory in the context of a total distribution plan.
- Don’t make assumptions as to business arrangements or legal structures. Going back to our distribution discussion, you could have agreement on geographic territories, then find out that your partner has taken an order directly. When queried, the partner said, “if the customer calls us directly, it is our customer”. Rather than terms like “exclusive distribution” or “reseller”, outline and review specific examples and get agreement. You might even consider a bit of role playing, if it helps make the point.
- Spend some time to get to know who you are talking to. I know of a U.S. reseller who spent an hour talking about very specific sales strategies to the person who he thought was responsible for sales at the European company. He later found out that the main qualification of the person he talked to was that she spoke English. While, we as Americans, like to get directly down to business, many times it makes sense to understand who you are talking to, and why they were assigned to be on the call. Be especially careful about assigning follow up tasks to your phone counterpart. The person you are talking to, may not be capable of following up as you intend. Don’t press for an immediate decision unless it is urgent. Your contact may not be capable of a decision, or fully understand what you are asking for. Work to understand how decisions are made.
- Be aware of cultural differences in what people are saying. I was talking to a German business executive who has managed in both Germany and the U.S. He said that in Germany, if someone says “I’ll try” it is likely that they will do it. If they think they may not be able to execute, they will push back and explain the risk. However, in the U.S. “I’ll try” has to be interpreted. Does it mean, that the employee is likely to complete the task, or is it a set up for an excuse?
- When dealing with people who speak English as a second language, be careful of jargon. I was in a meeting in Dublin, Ireland with people from around the world. In my attempt to get everyone to work together, I kept referring to the team as “you guys”. At the end of the meeting, one of the managers approached me and said, “Mark, I think my English is pretty good, but what does you guys mean?” Watch out for sports terminology. You could announce to your team that this quarter you want to “hit a home run”. If you are in Russia or China, how might they interpret “let’s make sure we score when we are in the red zone”?
- Understand that you need to commit to be in the relationship for the long term. While many of the people you will do business with have studied in the U.S., few have actually done business here. It will take time to help them understand the U.S. and be successful.
Your knowledge of doing business in the U.S. has value. Focus on smaller companies who have been successful in their home or local markets. Understand that you don’t need to “speak their language”. In many ways, being you is more important. On the other hand, showing the appropriate sensitivity is essential.
While it may take some time, working with a company from outside the U.S. can be rewarding. Once you have created the relationships, you can expect long term loyalty and support. Tell us about an experience you had?