For many American companies, doing business globally is a pot of gold that glistens and gleams, yet remains as elusive as the one at the end of the rainbow.
As a business consultant specializing in foreign language translation and interpretation for two decades, I find the biggest obstacle in cracking overseas markets is relationship building. Nearly everyone has recognized the growing value of using LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to connect with U.S. prospects and clients. But making and maintaining personal connections has always been a big part of doing business internationally. Yet, too many American firms bring a carefree attitude to the process.
In the U.S., we lay things out on the table and if you like it, OK; if you don’t, you don’t. Overseas, companies put as much emphasis on the chemistry of a business relationship as on the pros and cons of a product or service — and whether the numbers make sense.
Therefore, it is critical that we understand the nuances of language and culture that are essential to developing global relationships. Just to give one example, I heard the story of an American company that was so excited about a new contract with a Chinese firm that it bought expensive gifts at Tiffany’s and wrapped each Tiffany Blue box (the color is trademarked!) with a lovely white bow. Unfortunately, the white bow symbolized “death” in Chinese culture. So the unintended message associated with those gifts was “death to you,” and by extension, “death to this deal.” Thankfully, someone caught the error, and the gifts were delivered with a simple change in the color of the bows.
Here’s another faux pas, one U.S. citizens commit all the time when traveling in Canada, Latin, Central or South America. They say, “Hi, I’m an American!” People south of our border don’t like to hear that, because they consider themselves Americans, too. In their eyes, we are more accurately from Los Estados Unidos (The USA, and all residents of the Americas are “Americans”).
Such cultural missteps turn into big business problems. We are simply leaving too much money on the table, because we’re unaware that what we’re doing is interpreted as offensive. What we definitely have here is a failure to communicate!
A more fundamental problem than cultural mistakes is the fact that few U.S. companies are skilled in foreign languages. Their marketing materials are written in English, their video and audio presentations are articulated in English, and they offer them to foreign prospects “as is.” While it is true that English is the international language of business, it is also foolish to assume the other side wants to use English all the time.
Even worse than one-sided language usage is the failure to translate what foreign customers and partners have to say. Would you risk signing a contract with a U.S. company without having someone with expertise read it over? Of course not, but some American firms are in the habit of accepting foreign contracts and other documents at face value. Small companies commit this error, to be sure, but so do major corporations.
The solution to all of these pitfalls is to enter the global marketplace with a trusted partner: an advisory firm that is well-versed in the language and customs of international business. It is essential to go into an unfamiliar foreign market with the ability to communicate in the local language and operate with knowledge of local traditions and current trends.
The payoff — that overseas pot of gold — is too important to let a lack of words and manners keep us from it.
Dr. Randi Lou Franklin is the owner of Inter-Lingua, a Grosse-Pointe Farms, Mich., language and cultural consulting firm. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-378-2999.