When conducting business abroad, “Going to Rome, do as the Romans do” still applies. Before physically going abroad, however, consider what may be accomplished through other forms of communication, including on-line chats, webinars, etc. Some of the following advice may apply even to these alternative forms of communication.
1. One secret to conducting business abroad is that a little effort goes a long way. On one of my first visits to Paris, the ticket agent in the Metro gave me a hard time because I was not in full command of the language; but a well-dressed Frenchman behind me in line came to my defense and told the clerk, in no uncertain terms, that he ought to honor my fledgling attempts to speak French. You will be amazed at how a few well-selected phrases pay huge dividends. And the same goes for foods and other customs. Honor them as best you can. Your attitude really makes a huge difference.
2. Taking time ahead of time to learn about the people with whom you will meet is also part of showing respect. That is always true, but magnified exponentially when doing business internationally. Again, it is not necessary to learn everything; but failing to learn what is readily available to you borders on insult, and may actually be interpreted that way. With the Internet at your disposal, you really have no excuse for total ignorance. Look up names, companies, cities, regions, industry, etc. Check with chambers of commerce and your home country and foreign diplomatic and commercial representatives. Call the offices of your hosts and ask for guidance on dress code, meetings and greetings, titles, gift giving, table manners, special habits, etc. Not only will this impress your hosts, but you will be in a much better position to negotiate effectively. Moreover, you may discover resources available to assist you.
3. Depending on the situation, you may want to give yourself the ultimate advantage by enrolling in a “total immersion” course. Short of taking a commercial course, you can approximate the same by spending time with an individual or family steeped in the relevant culture or by visiting the country in a capacity not related to your business.
4. Even so, when you arrive in a foreign country ready for business, don’t think that you know it all: equip yourself with bicultural support. Lots can still be lost in the translation, both literally and figuratively. Depending on your need, consider your own foreign office representatives, local law firms with international connections, outsourcing companies, shared office space providers, translation bureaus, etc. Make sure they understand your goals and objectives before your business meetings.
5. Make yourself accessible while visiting by renting a local communications device (available at most airports) and adapting the preferred local communication methods, be it voice, text, video chat, etc. Use Google translations, as appropriate. Let your local contacts know ahead of time that you are taking these steps to facilitate communication and confirm with them when you are ready. Be sure to include your local address, as well, and the address of any meeting places. (This can also be of help in case you need to ask for directions yourself.)
6. When conducting business abroad, it is fine to show that you want results, but keep in mind that “Rome wasn’t built in one day.” Really getting to know your foreign counterparts is often the main need. It is like creating a new family. The actual business deal becomes almost an after-thought. Moreover, the concept of “closing” a deal may well be foreign in some cultures, in which doing whatever it takes to keep the “relationship” going is more important. For these reasons, think in term of “end games,” common goals and objectives, and be prepared to “share” responsibilities and rewards for achieving them.
7. And finally, recognize that international executives and staff live in a different world. Their perspective is global. There is an “international culture” that transcends all local cultures. And it is not necessarily snobbery: it is the natural outcome of having touch points in many cultures at the same time. With it come shared connections, often in high places, which form a worldwide support network. Communications devices like Skype, social media sites, texting, and chatting are important. International events in various countries are gathering opportunities across nationalities and industry and functional specialties. “Belonging” to this club is highly desirable, if your international ambitions are more than temporary. And your ticket to entry is simply to participate. (Be sure to communicate where your travels take you, both when you are and when your aren’t conducting business abroad.)