Making a good impression on a foreign client can be very different from working with people closer to home. You’ll have to adjust to different cultural expectations and ways of doing business. You’ll have a new set of economic circumstances to familiarise yourself with and new trade regulations to learn. It’s a big challenge, but the better you become at it, the more successful you’ll be at expanding your business to reach new markets and take advantage of the opportunities that working internationally can create.
Expanding internationally: things to consider
When you’re thinking of expanding into new territories you’ll need to make careful preparations that go a long way beyond simply investigating the degree of market demand for your products or services. A different national framework means different taxes as well as potential tariffs or incentives for foreign investors, which mean you’ll need to draw up a whole new set of cash flow projections. You’ll also need to work out what you can import and what you will need to purchase locally, investigating how to go about the latter and how prices will differ from those you’re used to. You’re likely to need local legal representation and, in many cases, access to translators. So where do you start?
Do your research
The first thing you’ll need to do is spend some time on research, whether you’re actually travelling abroad setting up a branch remotely or dealing with foreign clients in your British offices. Most people won’t expect you to know everything right away, but the more you know, the better impression you give of your general competence, and this will give contacts more confidence in the prospect of doing business with you. A great place to start is with websites written by British ex-pats living in the country you’re interested in, or ex-pat forums, as these are a handy source of tips that will help you understand cultural differences and avoid a faux pas.
Modify your behaviour
It’s one thing to learn about another culture, but can you adjust your behaviour to account for those differences? This is an area where it really helps to practice before getting into a delicate situation with a client. Some behaviour, like changing your clothing or keeping certain foods off the menu, are straightforward, but other things can require more practice. For instance, all sorts of completely innocent hand gestures can cause serious offence if you use them in certain countries. The way you move your head can mean a wide range of different things, and sometimes customs can vary in ways you wouldn’t expect. For instance, while drinking alcohol is likely to make a bad impression on your Middle Eastern clients, abstaining from it could make you seem untrustworthy to your Japanese ones.
Take an interest
If you hope that people will make allowances for you because you’re a foreigner, it pays to give them something in return. Most people like to show off the good things about their countries, so take an interest, and if you’re travelling or planning to travel there, ask your clients for recommendations. This will help you get more out of the experience on both a professional and a personal level, and it can help you to understand more about them as people.
One person who has made a success of working internationally is investment banker Fahad Al-Rajaan, who currently heads up Al Ahli United Bank in Bahrain but has also worked in Kuwait and has other business interests in Egypt, Iraq, Qatar and Oman. Studying at the American University in Washington D.C. in his youth introduced him to a cosmopolitan lifestyle that he has since capitalised on by expanding his international social contacts and therefore his business opportunities.
In another sector, Thailand’s Yuwadee Chirathivat, since taking over as CEO, has revolutionised the family business, the Central Department Store Group by expanding into Europe. She has made a big impression in Germany in defiance of the difference between the Thai and German economies. With stores in Italy and Denmark as well, she is making her business truly international, and it is partly this that has enabled her business to flourish at home where her peers have been struggling.
These stories illustrate how building international connections can enrich and strengthen business opportunities. Both Al-Rajaan and Chirathivat have been successful internationally because they have made a personal effort to expand their horizons and engage with people from different backgrounds. This is something you too can do, and it could do great things for your business.