The world has gotten a lot smaller the past few years. Tech advances in communications, e-commerce and logistics have leveled the playing field and made it possible for businesses of all sizes to buy and sell globally.
Of course doing so is easier said than done. While a specific country may seem appealing due to cost savings or its potential market size, pulling it off requires a commitment, appreciation of other cultures and a lot of patience. Every country has their own language, traditions, etiquette, ways of doing business, speed and food. All this can create frustrations on both sides.
Throughout my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to live across three continents and visit over 24 countries. I have gotten to know people from very different backgrounds, races and religions in each place (International Day at my school in Algeria felt like a visit to the UN).
These experiences have had a lasting impact on my worldview and how I work with international partners. I am currently manufacturing my healthcare products in four countries and selling them in multiple countries including the U.S. Here are a few of the lessons that have served me well.
Cultivate Curiosity And Understanding
Business is best served with a strong relationship built on trust and understanding. This applies even more so internationally. It is important to walk in with an open mind when dealing with customers, suppliers and other partners essential to your business.
It’s easy to make snap judgments or generalizations about people from other cultures. But it’s far more productive and rewarding when you take the time to listen and try to understand their perspective. For instance, if you’re working with a supplier who responds to a request with an abrupt, “No, we can’t do that,” try digging deeper into why they can’t do it. Instead of immediately getting angry or frustrated, push gently to figure out what the real issue is. Do they simply not want to work with your company? Or are they dealing with a technical, financial or materials problem?
Also look for creative ways to solve the problem so you can move forward. If it’s a financial issue, for example, perhaps you could offer to put down a deposit and send piecemeal payments to offset the burden. This willingness to understand where they’re coming from builds a deeper respect and appreciation between you and your partner.
Lead With The Truth
Being open and honest with your global partners – and asking for the same in return – is crucial. You may not always be willing or able to share every piece of information with them but be transparent about factors that affect them to avoid conflicts or misunderstandings.
A common challenge that companies face when working with manufacturers is demand forecasting. The supplier is pressuring you for next month’s production numbers so they can plan how many workers to put on the line and how much raw material to order to get the shipment out on time. Meanwhile, you may be looking at the financial impact. You’re not sure how much you need yet and don’t want to over- or under-produce, so you delay your order until the last minute.
Both of you have legitimate concerns, but unless you share them with each other, you may jump to negative assumptions. Your supplier will get frustrated by the last-minute order, and you will complain about their late shipments. A better solution is to be candid with the supplier and work out a schedule that works for both sides. Maybe you can’t predict numbers on a monthly basis, but you can do it quarterly, with room to adjust as needed.
When I travel, I always make it a rule to eat the local food. First, I personally enjoy it, but second it helps you understand their culture. It’s such a simple gesture, and it really goes a long way to strengthen relationships. On my first trip to Taiwan, the company I was meeting with brought in lunch to the conference room: regional food for everyone else… and McDonald’s for me. They were being gracious and figured they would bring the American something he likes because he wouldn’t want to eat our food… not true, I wanted what they were having!
Sitting down and having a meal is such a fundamental part of human connection, and people take great pride in sharing this part of their culture. If you are a foodie, you’ll enjoy tasting new dishes, but even if you’re not, your hosts will appreciate that you at least made the effort. Similarly, always eat dinner at local restaurants and not at the hotel. I find the food to be better and the next day when I meet with partners and they ask what I ate last night, telling them where sparks a lively conversation that wouldn’t happen otherwise. All of a sudden, they are sharing food stories and recommendations, and we have a new point of connection.
Ultimately, a global mindset is the simple desire to learn about other people and understand what makes them tick. We all want to feel appreciated and respected, and by showing that to your international partners, you can form lasting and mutually beneficial friendships.