Doing Business Abroad

Welcome to the New Year! I’m happy that we have so many people availing themselves of these complimentary articles. If there’s a topic you would like to read about, send me an e-mail at the address listed elsewhere on this site.

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Australia, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Japan. Earlier in 1997 I was in Spain, and the year before in Italy. In February, I’m due to be in England, France, Luxembourg, and Germany. There is a great deal of business around the world for US-based consultants, whether through domestic, global companies or organizations based overseas.

The keys to doing business abroad, in my view, include:

  • Arrange for payment in US dollars drawn on US banks, preferably payable in advance. While I was in Thailand, for example, the currency (baht) plunged to an historic low against the dollar.
  • Provide for materials to be duplicated locally. It’s often tough to get things through customs, and local paper size, electricity, and formats are often different from what you’re accustomed to. Let your local contacts take care of the logistics.
  • Use limos and personal drivers. Traffic is often dreadful, you can’t expect taxi drivers to speak fluent English, sometimes security is a concern (even in places such as Mexico City and Rio), and you need to minimize your stress levels while doing business. Rates for private cares are usually very reasonable, and your client will often provide them if asked.
  • Do not rely on audio/visual support. Not only does availability vary, but the quality isn’t always what you’d expect. Conference rooms are not always similar to US norms. Plan to do without them as a contingency, if you must.
  • Virtually all executives and even most managers speak passable English. If you speak slowly, there’s no problem. Learn enough of the local language to introduce yourself, find the rest rooms, order a meal or drink, and make your hosts comfortable.
  • In many places, people like to contemplate information before rendering an opinion. This is not a language or comprehension problem, although some short-sighted Americans think it is. Don’t expect or demand immediate response to material provided, unless you’ve arranged for prior dissemination.
  • It’s often impolite to provide any feedback that may be construed as critical of superiors. Don’t make people uncomfortable by asking for it. Keep discourse positive.
  • You’ll often be told “yes” out of courtesy, even though that’s not what’s really meant. Don’t accept it as a commitment beyond the immediate intent. (The Japanese word “hai” which is used repeatedly, actually means “I’ve heard you,” and not “yes.”)
  • Suggest to your US clients/contacts that you’re sensitive to overseas requirements and would be prepared to extend your projects to remote sites.
  • When abroad, make contact with local management associations (e.g., the Singapore Institute of Management) which would welcome a guest speaker from the US on someone else’s dollar, and which will provide you with an audience of potential buyers.
  • Finally, have fun. Travel is one of the primary benefits of this profession, and the intellectual breadth derived from travel is to be relished.