Six Tips to Make an International Business Trip Successful
In the modern business environment, working with international partners, customers, or suppliers is inevitable. Sometimes an international project will be brief and short lived; in other instances your working relationship can last several years as you acrue thousands of frequent flier miles. Perhaps you will end up on an expat assignment for a couple years. When traveling abroad for business it is important to understand that adjusting your style and approach to working within the other culture can be the difference maker in closing a deal. And fortunately, all it takes is a little preparation.
Here are six simple things to think about before jumping on that flight:
1. You’re on Their Turf – Like the Wizard of Oz, at all times remember you’re not in Kansas anymore. You’re on their turf and need to be respectful of that. Several years ago I traveled to Sweden for a meeting with a customer with an American colleague. No matter how many times I reminded him, he kept referring to the price of meals and souvenirs in ‘dollars’ in front our Swedish hosts. Our hosts were kind enough to not comment on the repeated slip ups, but certainly noticed. Be sure to learn a few things about the place where you’re going so you don’t make unnecessary mistakes. The dollar may be an international currency, but you still need Krona to buy something in Stockholm.
2. Recognize Your Pace – It may be frustrating for you, but different countries work at different paces. In the U.S., the most cordial of meetings start by asking how the weather is in the other party’s location, immediately followed by diving into the business at hand. Meetings in Belgium will start with handshakes around the room and coffee before any business is spoken. When in China, you may go to four meetings before you even get to the topic you came to discuss. Regardless of the pace and style of your home country, its important to be prepared for working in the environment of the other party. It’s always best to follow the pace of the host party, especially if you have no prior experience working there. In some countries, by coming across too aggressively or appearing to not take a meeting seriously enough may actually be offensive and disrespectful to the other party.
3. Avoid Social Taboos – When you are traveling to another country for meetings, learn what’s important to the locals. While many Western nations are fairly casual and relaxed, not all cultures are as informal. Bringing up a news story you heard about Pakistan while you’re at a meeting in India will surely sour the relationship. When in China, asking a customer what they think about the one child policy over a friendly lunch will make your hosts uncomfortable. And sharing your impression of the Nazi concentration camp you visited over the weekend to your German supplier may impact what you’re trying to accomplish. Every country has its social taboos and sensitivities. Spend time learning the hot buttons for your destination country and avoid pressing them.
4. Grazie? Or Merci? Which is it? – Spend some time on your flight to your destination to learn a few words. “Hello” and “Thank You,” are great suggestions. Make sure you remember them and use them often. While many meetings are held in English, learning a few words in the native tongue will show your counterparts that you respect them and their culture. Particularly if you are working through a translator, a last “Thank you and Goodbye” in the native language will mean a lot to your hosts. After a long day of meetings in Romania recently, I uttered a simple “mulțumesc” (thank you) on my way out and saw my host’s eyes light up. The follow-on meetings later that week were tremendously improved and open. A single effort goes a really long way. It can also help break some of the initial discomfort upon first sitting down at the conference room table.
5. Have Some Humility – Less is always more. A Chinese colleague of mine invited myself and a couple Americans over for dinner. While his wife was in the kitchen and we sat on the couch, we couldn’t help but notice the large flat screen TV. As a means of making conversation while we waited, one of the Americans in the group asked how many stations they received on their television. The Chinese colleague proudly said “quite a lot, maybe 40.” I cringed hoping he would not return the question back to us. Remember that some of the possessions and privlidges you have at home are unlikely to be comparable to your host in many parts of the world. Also recall that successful business often comes down to relationships and respect. Boasting about your 90 inch flat screen and 1000 satellite channels will not make the other party feel especially good if they don’t have anything close. Part of making a good impression overseas is not making the other party feel inferior.
6. Learn Gestures and Styles – Every country has unique gestures and behaviors that signify something, so it’s worth reading up on your destination. For example, for your business meeting in Beijing, laughter from your Chinese counterpart can signify discomfort or embarrassment. You may think your Chinese client is not taking matters seriously, but this is not the case. If you’re in the UK, your supplier may not raise their voice, but may be quite direct in what they say. Don’t be fooled by the pleasant accent, they mean business. When in Japan, it is customary that the lowest ranking individual on the Japanese side of the table will ask their questions so more senior members can save face. No matter how silly the question is, show respect; you may in fact be answering the question of the CEO two seats over.
Doing business abroad is common and very enjoyable when things go well. It’s important to prepare for working in another culture in order to set yourself up for a productive trip. Following these tips is a great start to making your next trip abroad a good one.
For more on doing business internationally, see Mexico vs. Japan: The World Cup of Business, which highlights some of the different styles and values you will encounter doing business abroad.