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Top Ten Tips for Doing Business Outside the United States

By: Vicki Flier Hudson Email By: Vicki Flier Hudson
December 2010
Top Ten Tips for Doing Business Outside the United States

These days the word global buzzes everywhere, from the farthest reaches of China to the hopping metropolises of Kenya, but what does global really mean? Organizations and individuals can conduct international business without having a global mindset, and they might not know the difference. As an intercultural business consultant, I have observed a number of behaviors and mindsets that contribute to a truly global organization. Here are my top ten tips for doing business outside the United States.

10. Polish your virtual communication skills
The majority of business conducted outside of the United States is virtual, using myriad technologies. Virtual effectiveness, however, is 10% technology and 90% relationship building. Inject warmth into your e-mails with salutations and greetings or send virtual team members a photograph of yourself. Stay abreast of new virtual communication technologies and find creative ways to connect.

9. Learn what locals are called
Some names for locals are easy. People from Germany are called Germans in the English language, for example. What about locals from Manila, Philippines, or Puebla, Mexico?  You may not know that Manilites or Poblanos reside there. In negotiating high-stakes deals or winning new business, details like these can make a big difference. For a handy reference, check out the book Labels for Locals by Paul Dickson.

8. Avoid projected similarity
One of the most significant barriers to successful global business is our perception of other cultures. Let’s say an American gets an overseas assignment in Britain. He thinks, “I won’t get culture shock in England. They’re just like us.” He gets to England and discovers that, as George Bernard Shaw stated, “America and Britain are two nations divided by a common language.” Look for common ground, but assume differences are present.

7. Use the magic phrase “I don’t know”
 Imagine you are walking and see your French colleague. You smile warmly and say hello. In return you receive a short nod before your colleague looks away. You may think, “How rude!” Future interactions with the French co-worker become negative because you assume he is unfriendly. Why did your French colleague behave that way? Saying “I don’t know” allows for many possible answers; it allows you to wait, gather more information, and ask questions.

6. Have fun and enjoy the rewards of culture
Create opportunities to share culture, such as festivals, international lunches, film screenings, music, or heritage events with your business associates. When you travel outside the USA, say “yes” to city tours with your clients, unusual foods, or chats with taxi drivers.

5. Write down the name of your hotel in the local language
This tip may seem obvious, but many business travelers leave their hotels  carrying a client address in the local language, but not the address of the hotel. When you leave your hotel, have the staff write down the name and address in the local language and keep it with you at all times.

4. Ask open-ended questions rather than closed yes-or-no questions
In many cultures, a “yes” doesn’t always mean “yes.” The desire to accommodate a customer or save the face of a family member may lead to a reduced use of the word no. To avoid confusion, ask open-ended questions. For example, rather than asking “Do you have any questions?” ask “What questions do you have?”

3. Fall in love with accents
At a recent conference, a discussion came up about struggles with accents, especially in virtual communication. One of my colleagues said, “I tell my clients to fall in love with accents.” I fell in love with that statement. Everyone has an accent of some sort, and we must not give up seeking to understand each other. Take on the challenge and ask people to repeat things or slow down.

2. Create specific protocols for business across borders
Working outside the United States means significant time-zone differences that can wreak havoc on business. Develop a Time Zone Protocol where all involved agree on how the time zone will be handled. For example, everyone should put their business hours and time zone in their e-mail signature for easy use.

1. Behave as a united team, not as a divided competitor
Whether or not you work for the same company, if you are doing business outside the United States, you are part of a global team. Apply best team practices, such as creating role clarity and well-defined expectations, building personal relationships, and aligning with the same goals.
Best of luck in your global business endeavors, and let’s keep adding to this list. I look forward to our continued dialogue.

Vicki Flier Hudson is a Principal Consultant for Highroad Global Services, Inc. She specializes in building connected, high-performing teams between the U.S. and India. Vicki can be reached at vicki@highroaders.com.


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