British Business Doing Business with North Americans

From the Farnham Castle – Intercultural Training Archives

By Robert Day who is an independent management development and training consultant, specialising in effective communication, negotiation, team development, and cross cultural issues in international business.

Written for Farnham Castle International Briefing & Conference Centre.

Article originally published in 2002 – Author: Robert Day

The key attributes for successfully doing business with North Americans are Informed, Focussed, and Positive. These are good qualities for doing business almost anywhere, but in North America they are indispensable. British business people may sometimes come across as vague, tentative, and cautious, qualities that will get you nowhere quickly. But if you adhere to a few important guidelines, you can take the important first steps to attaining your business objectives with North American partners and colleagues.

Preparing for your visit

USA & Canadian Border

Warning: Do not treat the USA and Canada as one entity, and above all do not mistake or refer to (native English-speaking) Canadians as Americans

Be fully informed of the potential North American market for your products and services. That market is huge, but very segmented. If you propose to sell in America, you must also be fully informed as to your competition (There will always be some!), state and local (as well as national) laws and regulations pertaining to your business, the needs and business objectives of your buyers, and in turn their customers.

In Canada, the provinces too have a certain degree of legal and regulatory powers regarding business. In Quebec, you may find yourself speaking English or French when doing business, but be aware of strict language laws designed to protect the use and expression of French. In many cases, you would be well advised to have your commercial documentation in French. Don’t bother leaving home without researching all these areas.

Be prepared to network beyond the usual events such as trade shows and industry events. Use Chambers of Commerce, service organisations of which you are a member such as Rotary, or US/Canadian clubs with which the UK may have reciprocal arrangements. And that chatty North American seated next to you on the flight may turn out to be useful. If so, don’t hesitate to ask for names and addresses, or to follow up on them.

Make sure you bring with you something specific to offer or propose. Your North American counterpart is generally not very interested in discussions “in principle”.

We may or may not do business

Ensure your colleagues back in the UK are ready to respond immediately to requests from you for approvals, support, and information. If you are going over to North America to negotiate an agreement, equip yourself with full authority to conclude that agreement; your counterpart there will expect it.

Prepare a clear message to deliver in crisp, clear terms: Why you are there, What you are offering, How it benefits your audience, What you need, How and when you will deliver/respond. Your North American counterpart may have a different agenda, to which you can adapt on the spot, but don’t go into a meeting think that you can ‘wing it.’

Ensure that you are equipped for remote communication: portable computer and cellphone/wireless (as they say in the States) phone connection.

North American Business Culture, Practices, and Etiquette

Americans and Canadians are broadly similar in their approaches to doing business. You may find that some Canadians have greater affinity, and indeed closer ties, to Britain than their American neighbours, but don’t expect too much.

Success in North American business culture depends on both having a specific sound business idea, and presenting this idea effectively. Whether they are buying an investment opportunity from you, or your product/service, they are also “buying” you and your team as people. Generally North Americans are not so much interested in getting to know you in depth, as they are in assessing your confidence (even enthusiasm), determination, and reliability (to deliver as promised).

Presentation style: Whether one-on-one or to a group, you should “sell” your idea with an emphasis on clear positive benefits and results, and clear “deliverables” in a tone which signals your full confidence that any problems – or “challenges” – have been or will be dealt with. Get straight to the point. There is no need to “hype” your proposal, but do not down-play or understate (in true British style!) what you have to offer. Your North American counterpart hears many competing proposals, and – all else being equal – would rather do business with a seller or partner who seems confident of success, than with one who appears tentative. In Canada, show that you understand the Canadian market as distinct from the USA.

Sell with confidence and they will…

Negotiating contracts or other agreements should present no high hurdles, but a friendly “win-win” atmosphere is the most appropriate, regardless of whether you obtain a win-win outcome. A North American negotiator may be impatient with long discussions of principle, background, or rationale. Again, the person with whom you are negotiating across the table is likely to want to talk details quickly, and get straight to contract terms.

When it comes to the actual agreement, be ready to move quickly, and put your details in writing straight away. North Americans do not regard this as “pushy,” but rather as evidence of commitment and willingness to do business.

Humour

Your British dry, ironic, and understated sense of humour may be lost on many Americans. Canadians by temperament may be slightly more receptive. But whichever country you are planning to visit, leave your pub jokes about women, Irishmen and other groups at home! The best approach is a friendly one to all, and actually, skip the jokes!

Meetings: North Americans are not too different from their British counterparts here. Have an agenda, get to the point, specify action items and what’s been agreed. Save long debates and discussions for individual sessions before or after.

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman… from The PC Scrapbook

Dress

As in Britain there is a trend toward greater informality of dress at the workplace, but this depends both on the ‘culture’ of the particular organisation or industry, and the situation (customer meetings are more formal occasions). So wear your tie and jacket, and look sharp. In the business environment, making a fast positive first impression in vital, and people do judge by appearances.

Women in Business

You are far more likely to meet a woman in a senior management position than in Europe. As with men, you can in conversation and in correspondence move quickly to first names.

In written and oral statements, use “his/her” and “he/she” to let it be known that you are not somehow by implication “excluding” women. It may seem awkward to you, but it is customary in the North America and it will quickly be noted if you do not do this.

With female customer or supplier representatives and colleagues alike, stay on a friendly professional level of conversation. Avoid commenting on someone’s appearance, dress, attractiveness, etc. Laws and regulations (usually State or Provincial) in both the USA and Canada regarding perceived ‘harassment’ of any kind are tough. But the principle reason to avoid such comments is simply to avoid offence.

Business hospitality and gift giving

This is an area of great sensitivity to large North American organisations, which normally have stated policies on what can or cannot be offered to or accepted from customers and suppliers. Do not bother with gifts as a marketing tactic. After you have a solid relationship with a North American partner, then small gifts of British origin and character are appropriate, though not essential, as goodwill gestures.

Don’t expect to do much business over lunch or a drink. It may happen, but people would rather stay at work or go to the gym than to a bar or restaurant, so let them take the lead in this. If you do have a business meal or drinks, use your common sense politeness when offering to pay. Your counterpart, male or female, will normally expect to pay for what they have consumed.

Most business hospitality in the USA and Canada will, as elsewhere, be conducted as marketing events.

Conclusion

If you are informed, focussed, and (appear) confident you will make the right impression on Americans and Canadians. They have no particular prejudices against you, and indeed considerable goodwill toward the British. If you have a good message, they will listen.

© Farnham Castle/Robert Day 2002

Farnham Castle

Robert Day is an independent management development and training consultant, specialising in effective communication/negotiation, team development, and cross cultural issues in international business. He has been living in London and working throughout the UK and Europe since 1988. He holds a BA from Yale in History and French, an MA in Education from the University of California Berkeley, and the CDMAV from the Sorbonne. He is a native of Connecticut, and has also lived in California (both northern and southern) and Virginia for extended periods.

Farnham Castle International Briefing Centre specialises in cross cultural management development programmes, international assignment briefings and language training for every country in the world in addition to those coming to live and work in Britain.

For further information about Farnham Castle’s training programmes visit www.farnhamcastle.com or call: +44 (0)1252 721194.

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Award winning advocate for art, heritage & culture; fine artist, museum & gallery manager and mild mannered front man of Relevant Elephant, finest purveyors of rock-steady hip-hop mambo
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