Contrary to what people sometimes assume, not everyone across the world networks the same way. As a result, trying to build overseas relationships can often feel like sailing across the Pacific with a blindfold -- regardless of whether you’re a first-time entrepreneur or seasoned executive.
What can business leaders do to ensure their exploration produces valuable connections? Having spent more than 35 years in international business, I’ve learned a few simple guidelines for navigating these waters. Here are a few keys to success:
1. Build trust through personal connections.
Trust is the most crucial element of building any business relationship, regardless of culture or nationality. You may be accustomed to handing out business cards to anyone and everyone, but most cultures are much more restrained when it comes to starting a relationship.
It’s safe to say most people in many other countries will never do business with you unless you have met at least twice in person. Find ways to make a personal connection by asking about a person's family and finding common ground. Avoid using social media to build this relationship, as these platforms are generally considered a less personal, somewhat juvenile form of communication.
When these new business associates start reciprocating by initiating contact or giving gifts, as is common in Asian cultures, you’ll know you are gaining their trust. If you aren’t sure where you stand, a straightforward way to gauge how people feel about you is to ask for a favor. If they are willing to help you, this is a good indication of trust and therefore their willingness to work with you.
2. Do your homework.
When meeting with international business associates, research their home countries and business cultures. For example, due to social ranking in Japan, it is common for the person with the most power to not be the one speaking, I have observed. Without knowing these types of factors, you may inadvertently disrespect the person you mean to impress.
Also be sure you know the exact names, titles and details of all meeting participants. Many people in Spanish-speaking cultures have two last names, such as Maria Joao Oliveira Brito. On the other hand, it’s quite possible that contacts from China may prefer you call them by their chosen English name.
3. Be clear and concise.
Most people are already self-conscious of how well they speak in their native language, let alone a foreign tongue. Be considerate of this fact when communicating with non-native English speakers -- especially when a translator is involved.
To ensure the best communication, use clear and concise language, avoiding any jargon or slang. You’d be surprised by how many sports idioms are used in the United States. For instance, unless you’re speaking with Americans, saying you “knocked it out of the park” will probably be met by blank stares.
4. Make a relationship, not a sale.
When developing a relationship with people from different cultures, remember that this process should feel more like a marathon than a sprint (excuse the sports analogy). Trying to push a sale or business transaction too early in the relationship can smother any social capital you may have gained. Furthermore, most cultures interpret speed as an indication of instability and underhandedness.
At individual meetings, a good rule of thumb is to avoid talking business for the first 20 minutes. In Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Latin and Caribbean cultures, it is often considered rude to begin talking business immediately. Additionally, international contacts may not respond to emails or phone calls with any sense of urgency. Don’t be put off by this. They could very well be on vacation, especially if they live in Europe or celebrating holidays that you’re unfamiliar with.
By viewing your interactions with business associates as a mutual exchange of shared experiences and values, rather than a mere series of transactions, you can gain the trust of those from other farflung cultures. By establishing this trust, thoughtfully building the relationship and educating yourself on cultural nuances, you’ll find much smoother sailing as you start networking internationally.