Have you ever been working with an international partner or client and suddenly found yourself in an unexpected conflict? This often happens in cross-cultural communications. It can lead to awkwardness and strain in the business relationship. This happened to me last year when working with a team of Chinese business professionals. Unfortunately I couldn’t directly ask the group what was wrong, but clearly things had gotten off track. It took a while to realize that what I had requested from the group’s leader was actually impossible to get and caused him to lose face. The entire group dynamic was shot for the day and I worked furiously to get us back to a pre-embarrassment point.
The good news is that when you spend time to cultivate strong bonds, many smaller conflicts and misunderstandings can be cleared up based on built-up goodwill. Likewise, some misunderstandings never come to pass because communication lines are more open. In the long run, building rapport saves time and money with faster deal making and more effective conflict resolution.
Here are ideas for building rapport that are proven to work:
- Consistent Contacts
When I say consistent, I’m talking about both periodic visits to meet with the contacts face to face AND keeping the same people connected to the relationship. I see many tech companies missing both components. Video conferencing, phone calls and emails can never take the place of building rapport in country. And when there is a major problem, it helps greatly to travel to the source of the issue to help resolve it. It shows great commitment to the partners, clients and suppliers involved.
The second critical piece is keeping the same company staff connected to key accounts or suppliers. Even when Joe gets a promotion from sales manager to VP Sales, he should take an active role with accounts he cultivated. Otherwise, the rapport building starts over. In most of the world, relationships are between individuals, not companies.
- Learn the Cultural Rules
This may seem like a given, but you’d be surprised how much today’s execs don’t necessarily know about their international counterparts. Last year I spoke with an American CEO who was baffled by the English. He had been spending time south of London with a company they were acquiring and stumbling through simple cultural differences. For example, don’t ask an Englishman about his life outside of business. It’s considered none of your business.
- Never Underestimate Shared Experiences
Share experiences can take on many different forms depending on the cultures involved. Some prefer to build rapport outside of work. For instance, the Chinese like to take their special guests on tourist trips to get to know the area. The Japanese like to go out drinking (the Russians as well). Businesswomen all over Latin America often watch Mexican Telenovelas. Others focus on joint business activities. German counterparts may like to do some sales calls together. Regardless of the activity, getting to know your contacts will serve you well during any challenging times!