Business trade within the UK accounts for four per cent of global GDP. That leaves a 96 per cent global opportunity for businesses ready to export skills and products. Trading abroad can boost your business profile, status and bottom line. It offers rewards, but comes with challenges too.
In a two-part series we examine the cultural and business aspects of thinking and working globally. Firstly, let’s look at some of the issues to do with language, culture and expectations when doing business outside of the UK.
Working globally: Language
English is often called the language of business, and it’s spoken at a useful level by 1.75bn people. That can make things a little easier for UK businesses dealing with connections and partners all over the globe. But speaking a common language doesn’t always mean that communication is straightforward. There are many things that can get lost in translation.
For example, people from some countries speak very directly which may be perceived by others as being blunt and unfriendly. Some value brevity and facts, wanting to get straight to the point, which may feel strange to UK businesses used to a little chit-chat before diving into negotiations.
The most typical misunderstandings often arise from what different parties mean by “yes”. Some cultures find it uncomfortable to disagree or say no directly, so they say “yes” to be polite, but they actually mean “I intend to do that”, or “I?ll pass that matter on”. This can cause frustrations when actions don’t progress in the way that you may expect.
Working globally: Culture
Business customs and etiquette can be very different across the world with many subtle variations that you may be unaware of. For example, how do you greet and address a business person you meet face to face A firm handshake, direct eye-contact or a kiss on each cheek” These can be acceptable or offensive depending on the culture of your colleague or client.
Do you address people by their surname and title, or are first name terms acceptable In Asian countries such as China, Singapore and South Korea, they are more likely to use a formal title and surname; whereas in the USA and Canada, you’re more likely to use first names. Doing business in different countries may mean adapting a more or less formal mode of address than you’re used to.
In meetings and discussions, you may find a very different attitude to asking questions and contributing ideas. In Japan, where there is a traditional culture of hierarchy and respect for status, people in junior roles will defer to those more senior, for example. Whereas in Scandinavian countries like Norway and Sweden, society emphasises equality, so you may expect more input from people across the organisation.
Working globally: Time differences
Technology has made it easier to do business on a global level, through improving communications, and it is possible to get a lot of business done via email, telephone calls and online conferencing.
But you still need to think about reasonable times to schedule calls and catch ups. You may find a very small window of opportunity to call between the UK and Australia or New Zealand, or be prepared to be flexible about what you consider typical business hours.
Time differences become more complex if you’re dealing with people in multiple locations, manufacturing in South East Asia and trading in the USA, for example. Issues that could be solved with a simple call can take longer to resolve if you only have a small window of overlap in your communications.
Working globally: Work and holiday time
Every country has different national holidays and events that can impact on a typical working week. While some, like US Independence Day and Thanksgiving celebrations are well known, others may have you wondering why there’s no one in the office.
There are also national and cultural differences about typical working days. Workers in France, Spain and Italy often take a longer break in the middle of the day, so scheduling a Skype call or conference when they expect to be enjoying lunch may prove unpopular.
Also, not everyone works Monday to Friday. Throughout the Middle East and in Israel, the typical working week is Sunday to Thursday.
Working globally: Research your areas?
Wherever you are planning on trading, it’s important to do your research on each country before you start setting up your business. The Department for International Trade provides a series of guides, including research on markets, population and other useful information for UK businesses interested in trading overseas. There’s also no substitute for going and visiting yourself, so that you can see and talk directly with partners in other countries.
In part two of our guide, we ll be looking in more detail at what you need to think about from a business point of view when you plan to expand into trading abroad.
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