Sam stood at the back of the room taking stock of the evening’s networking event. As a Business Development Manager from Kansas, was his first international industry trade show and he wanted to make the most of it. But the more he tried to appear friendly and helpful, the less that people seemed to want to talk with him. Sam had been to dozens of trade shows and meetings in the United States where people generally considered him charismatic and engaging. What was these people’s issue?
It is important to ask the right questions before you can find the answers that you really need. That is often true in international business. Here are a few that Sam might ask to get closer to the right answers:
How important is business networking internationally compared with outbound selling and marketing in the U.S.?
How might people be interpreting his approach?
Is there anything that Sam should change in his international networking approach for better outcomes?
Networking and Connections Are a Necessity
In the United States, when two parties want to do business they sign a negotiated contract legally defining their relationship and obligations to each other. That’s not how the rest of the world works. Instead, the business relationship is based on a professional relationship based on mutual interests and trust. This is why replacing your Latin American sales director can mean losing many clients. The clients follow the person they know, not your company.
The American Business Reputation
Actually, my countrymen have earned a business reputation that is wide and varied. Some places love us just because we are American, while others revile us for the same reason. Most are someone in the middle. Watch for body language to know if there’s a significant Country of Origin Effect.
Americans are considered a friendly business culture: leading with smiles, eye contact and handshakes for everyone. That doesn’t always match up with other cultures’ expectations. In Russia, the smiling person is considered to be an idiot. In Germany it can be seen as insincere, arousing suspicion. In the Middle East and India, a man should never extend a handshake to a woman. It is considered aggressive. That is not to say that we shouldn’t act within our cultural norms, but we should also be aware of any signals we give off that can be counterproductive.
American also typically make grandiose offers help to others while networking. This is in part because we want to build trusting relationships as quickly as possible. Others may grow suspicious of so much offered after just having met each other. It seems just too good to be true!
Tips for Better International Networking
Getting back to Sam from Kansas… what can he do to improve his effectiveness in this high-opportunity room?
- Research the Attendees. You should always know who you want to meet and have a plan to meet them. For instance, if you want to meet a major distributor in Latin America then learn about this contact as well as those who could introduce you to him. In the English-speaking world you should Linkedin for contacts’ profiles. Also, read translated pages from their company websites.
- Don’t Rush the Conversations. Accept the slower pace of business relationship building that is standard in most of the world. That means that you should take cues in the conversation from your counterpart. Wait for them to bring up specific business questions. Instead, they may just want to socialize. That’s progress too.
- For God Sake, Follow Up! After an event, the smart professional follows up with each contact to say that it was nice to meet them and that you would like to stay in touch. It’s standard best practices and yet many people don’t do this simple step. What’s worse is if you made any promises of introductions or other business favors and don’t follow through. People will remember if you are reliable to your word.
- Know the Basics of Cross-Cultural Communications. If you have a specific cultural audience (Germans, Chinese, Brazilians, etc.) then do deeper research. But here are a few basics that everyone should know:
- Showing the soles of your shoes is highly offensive to Middle Easterners.
- Don’t cross your legs and point a foot at a Malaysian.
- Chinese will compliment you during a conversation. You need to NOT say “thank you” but instead politely reject the compliment and immediately find some way to return a sincere compliment (“I like your tie.” “Your English is very good.”, etc)
- Don’t make sports references like from baseball or American football.
- Generally men should wait for a woman to extend her hand to shake.
- Some cultures like to stand close when talking. Whatever you do, DON’T take a step back.
- Avoid sarcasm. It can often get lost in translation.
- PLEASE don’t drink excessively, even if other people are bringing you drinks or pouring them. Stay in control at all times.
Now Sam can get back to doing the networking he needs to help him be successful. With a few minor adjustments he can find connections that could eventually become business partners.
If your staff struggles to make the right types of connections in international markets to move your company forward, consider cross-cultural training. It is normally a small investment that opens many doors to international opportunities!
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