Ed van den Berg explains that English is no longer the language of business, and in dealing with prospects in China, the Middle East, and South America this will present problems when chasing payments, or even just getting the order.
This is also becoming more important in the UK, as our society becomes more cosmopolitan. You could easily come into contact with someone on your doorstep who doesn’t speak English fluently.
While the language barrier can be overcome fairly easily, perhaps by employing someone who is fluent in that tongue, there are other things to consider – especially in credit control.
Knowing the lingo is just not enough. You need to understand business cultures, because a faux pas could make a massive difference to getting paid on time (or even at all).
Whilst Government organisations like UK Trade and Investment do a great job of helping businesses develop trading links in Europe and further afield, they don’t often address the issue of international business cultures.
In response to this, here are ten things you need to be aware of when dealing with overseas companies.
Know who’s making the decisions: many companies, such as in Greece, place all authority in the hands of a select few, so make sure you’re speaking to the right person.
Be clear on every aspect of the agreement: in some cultures (e.g. China) it is frowned upon to say ‘no’ – but that doesn’t mean you have an agreement. Get a direct ‘yes’.
Stick to the agreement, and make sure they do too! The Nordic countries stick rigidly to agreements, but in others, like the former Soviet nations, the opposite is true, so you may have to chase consistently.
Agendas: similarly agendas will be followed to the letter in Finland, and Switzerland, while meetings in Russia will be much more laidback.
Avoid humour: in Germany, humour is generally considered to be out of place in business, so avoid it in all difficult or important business situations.
Be on time! Scandinavian countries view punctuality to be of the utmost importance, and it would be frowned upon to even be a minute or two late. This is not the case in Southern Europe.
Small talk: many countries, including The Netherlands and Germany, prefer you to get straight to the point in your business dealings with them. Others like Brazil value rapport so take the time to develop a friendly relationship.
Get straight to the point: Subtlety, diplomacy and coded speech can all lead to problems, so don’t beat around the bush.
Follow up your initial communication: some countries place more importance on the written word than the spoken word, and vice versa.
In Spain for instance, it’s important to follow-up an email with a phone call, but in Germany you must do the opposite and put your phone conversations into writing.
Check and double check written communications: get your message wrong in your initial communication and you could have problems, particularly when dealing with French or German prospects.
Written business French is also extremely formal and full of protocol, with an etiquette which can seem misplaced in translation.
Ed van den Berg is the Operations Director of Warrington-based cash flow management specialists Octempo:RM