6 Mistakes to Avoid When Going Abroad

Doing business in other cultures can be a minefield if you expect things go the same as at home

Written by Angelina Chapin

When Georges Brotman made his first presentation in Japan more than a quarter century ago, three of the six people in the room had their eyes closed. He later asked a representative what happened. The answer: while they may have been concentrating hard on understanding his English, it is possible some were sleeping. Brotman learned that in Japan, most decisions are consensus-based, and since it is common to be up late entertaining guests or travelling, it’s acceptable for business people to catch up on sleep in a meeting and have a colleague fill them in later.

The experiences Brotman had running a strategic-planning business abroad for 28 years showed him there was a market for preparing others to do the same. He runs Transculture Training International Consulting (TTI), a Toronto-based company that helps prepare businesses and individuals looking to either relocate or do business abroad.

French-born Brotman says he works continually with 10 to 12 companies a year, mainly large multinational companies from the Fortune 500 list, to orient themselves in another culture. He says that 70% of those companies are looking to do business in India and China, and he has 15 people in Canada who run preparatory workshops as well as 35 spread out across various countries to help businesses adjust at the ground level.

However, Brotman says many SMEs looking to do international business are reluctant to use his services because they don’t yet understand its value or they don’t have the resources or they view training as an unnecessary investment. “You have to do business with host country on their terms,” he says. “Many times companies go there and hit a wall because they have no understanding of the culture. We can do that briefing in one or two days.”

Brotman says the following are common mistakes that can make an international venture turn sour.

1. Finding the wrong partner

Brotman says introductions are important, and that using due diligence to find an organization or individual to partner with overseas is crucial. You need to be skeptical, and check thoroughly to make sure your partner has the networks and relationships they claim before entering into business. He suggests using a consulting firm or talking to people working in your industry in that country to find out where to start looking.

2. Presenting North American-style

Be sensitive to the fact that many countries take a different approach to presenting information. Brotman says we tend to be fact-based and outline benefits and costs to encourage quick decision-making whereas in China, Japan, and India, presentations are meant to build relationships rather than convey information efficiently. Brotman says information in India is often presented in a pyramid, where the important information doesn’t come until the end, and that often decisions that seem resolved are brought up again. “North Americans don’t do well with uncertainty,” he says. “Over there, they like to keep things fluid so if anything changes they can deal with it.”

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3. Being impatient

When Brotman used to do business in the Far East, he’d block off a week for meetings that would normally take a few hours in North America. He says people want to know their business partners, often by entertaining them with customs like karaoke. “You must say yes,” he advises, adding the North American way of having a contract ready to sign won’t fly. “Trust is most important thing. You don’t need the best product or service to have a contract with a foreign organization as long as they trust you can do what you claim to do.”

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4. Subverting the hierarchy

If you’re planning on sending your new MBA hire to India to meet with the director of business development of a company, think again. Brotman says in many South Asian countries, there’s a rigid hierarchy and meetings can only be set up with someone in your equivalent position. “Titles and achievements are important,” says Brotman. “If you’re of a lower level you’ll never get the right appointment with decision makers.” He says that when on a conference call with a South Asian country, many times only one person is authorized to speak and advises you choose a person from your company at the same level to do the talking. It’s important to know how people like to be addressed: by first name, last name, or with their academic titles.

5. Mistaking language for culture

Brotman says many times companies tell him they have someone on staff of Indian or Chinese origin that is a perfect fit to send overseas because they know the language. “It’s not enough,” he says, adding many are second-generation immigrants. “They also need to know the business practices and customs.” For example, he says that in India, people will answer yes to things they can’t do because in business culture it is better to save face than be honest. He advises asking specific open-ended questions like “What process do you use?” and “How long does it take?” to get a better sense of where they’re at. He also suggests learning a country’s sense of personal space and touch to avoid offending anyone.

6. Giving up

Often companies get discouraged because they don’t do the proper research before going abroad. Brotman says Canadians are more risk-averse than people from other countries, and that if something is too complicated, we’re easily dissuaded and quick to blame the other culture for being hard to navigate. “Many people say they can buy a book and be ready,” he says. “But the trip ends up being worthless because they were faced with situations they didn’t know how to deal with. Just having an academic background is not sufficient, you need workplace experience and to be walked through the process of business deals from beginning to end.”

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