If you have considered buying from international sources, selling abroad or hiring an off-shore workforce, we’d like to make some suggestions:

Do Your Homework

Importing, exporting, and hiring abroad are all wrapped in a tangle of regulations, tax implications, fees and opportunities for disaster. Be sure you have excellent counsel before agreeing to anything.

You should also have a understanding of the country, its current governance and the prospects for economic and political stability. Tomorrow’s coup could deal a blow to your business. If there is any likelihood of political or economic instability you should have effective safeguards in place.

You should also learn the basics of their culture, manners and business etiquette. The more cosmopolitan they are, the more likely they are to understand that there are a range of acceptable manners around the world and may forgive you small gaffes. Those without international experience will assume their way is the world’s way and be offended.

The entire two years I lived in Central Moscow I was routinely prevented from purchasing an even number of flowers because Russians only use even numbers for funerals. Pretty cosmopolitan city, and yet…

Go See it

Whether you are buying doors from Vietnam, selling software to Namibia or hiring a company in  in Brazil to make shoes, go see it, go meet the people, go see what the business is capable of, go develop an understanding of the local conditions. We’ve all read of hideous accidents which cost lives and earned their US partners an enduring black eye. I’m not suggesting that you will necessarily know how sturdy the building is, but you may have a sense of how the employees are treated, the quality of the work they turn out, and something about their supply chain you are not likely to learn sitting in the US.

Perhaps more important, human beings tend to demonstrate more concern for, and investment in, people we have a relationship with.  Go create a relationship before you start transferring large sums of money abroad.

You’re Not in Kansas Anymore

If you do not have much experience traveling outside the US on your own (tours tend to do everything for you thereby putting you at a distance from the local businesses) you may be unaware of just how differently similar cultures may function.  Large companies have employees and agents on both sides to smooth the way. You probably don’t.  So, a few suggestions:

This is the single most important piece of wisdom I can impart to you: Shut up and listen. The way things are done here is NOT universal.  Customs, mores and politics inform the business sector in other countries just as they do ours.  Ask lots of questions about everything and take time to process the answers so that you are not shocked when the client’s lawyer fails to show up for a meeting because it’s an auspicious day. Just nod solemnly and get on with it.

Don’t make assumptions about anything. Ask even the most mundane questions because the answers may surprise you. I had a client once who had apparently decent cash flow, but was selling on a most peculiar schedule. It took over an hour for me to find out that, in her country, all sales must be put through the state bank.  The state bank, however, is under no requirement to give it back. So the money existed, she just couldn’t access it to create more product. She assumed I understood that. I didn’t. If you don’t ask you won’t either.

Under no circumstances ask their opinion about their own government.  Depending on where you are in the world, you may be putting them in a difficult, or even dangerous, position. It is fine to ask general questions about what the government will or will not allow as it pertains to the business at hand (e.g. Would the government permit me to export this antique rug as a marketing image?).

They likely know more about your country then you do about theirs. They may have opinions on US conduct. Whether they applaud the US government or loathe it, discussing the US government runs the risk of alienating your partner. I recommend you shy away from those discussions.

At the risk of alienating all of you, I’m just going to say this: As a general rule, the rest of the world dresses better than we do.  The fact that you do business in jeans and a tee shirt does not mean you should wear that costume abroad.  I know from personal experience that some American’s have insulted their clients by underdressing. The client took it as a mark of disrespect.

You are coming from, arguably, the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. Citizens of small or poor countries are very cognizant of the differences. They have a host of images of the US from movies and television and may feel their own land does not measure up to what they imagine the US has to offer. Don’t do anything to reinforce that image. Don’t make unflattering comparisons. Don’t denigrate anything, especially the government. Don’t take the bait if they make scathing comments about your country. Do make it a point to compliment the local culture, scenery, food music…whatever.

As an aside, many people of other lands base their perception of the US on movies and TV shows, giving them a truly skewed view of how we live. I’ve had many conversations about servants (No, I don’t have any.), gun violence (yes, it’s a problem. No, I don’t own one), racial inequity (No, most racial minorities are middle class), and the day-to-day realities of how most people live. If your reference point is “Dallas” or some “Real Housewives” show, you can imagine that your image of US culture would be peculiar, to say the least. I had one client affect shock when she learned that families here gather for celebrations just as they do everywhere, but it speaks to how distorted their image of us can be.

In summary, you are trying to create a profitable relationship with a company who exists in a different reality than you. Never lose sight of the potential for problems resulting from misunderstandings.


Share This