Rules of Engagement
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When considering doing business overseas, it isn’t enough to just perform country and market research. To effectively explore a country for possible business opportunities, you have to take a scouting trip. It should be a well-planned, one-to-twoweek affair designed to introduce your company to the market, introduce the market and the country’s culture to your company, and set a foundation for future business.
Before You Leave
Before embarking on a trip, know what you need to enter and stay in the country, what you expect to accomplish, who you are going to see, and how you will set up your operational infrastructure. Check the U.S. State Department website (state.gov) for any travel advisories for the country you are traveling to. I also highly recommend the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) website (osac.gov) for security information. OSAC is a partnership between the State Department’s Office of Diplomatic Security and US corporate and non-profit members.
The more attention you pay to the smallest details, the more pleasant and productive your trip will be. Take nothing for granted. Some of the details include:
- Make sure you have a valid passport not due to expire within the next six months.
- Check with the country’s consulate in the US for any visa and inoculation requirements.
- Arrange for visas and reserve tickets, but do not finalize the purchase until all your dates are confirmed.
- Research hotels to choose the best one you can afford and inquire about their business center, internet connection, and airport transfers.
- Contact translation bureaus to price and pre-interview interpreters by phone.
- Arrange for transportation. Unless you are going to a developed country, you are well advised to hire a car and driver for the duration of the trip. A few phone calls to the interpreter and the U.S. Commercial Service (trade.gov/cs/), and a quick search on the web, should produce the names of a few drivers. Choose one and have a back up.
Planning Your Meetings
A good place to start when scheduling meetings is the Gold Key Matching Service offered by the U.S. Commercial Service (buyusa.gov). As part of this service, Commercial Service Specialists can set up introductory meetings with prospective customers, suppliers, service providers, partners, or local government officials in the country of your destination.
The Specialists can also run local company profiles and assist in local market research. The fee for such service is nominal, but the benefits are superb. In my opinion, U.S, commercial Service is one of the most effective export promotion platforms operated by the Department of Commerce. With its vast network of foreign and domestic offices it is a great resource that everyone who is considering business abroad should learn to use to compliment all other business development efforts.
Your next step should be the local American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). Depending on your business, your business model, and your objectives, it can help you arrange meetings with potential customers, the government agencies that regulate your industry, and local authorities.
Once you know who you will be meeting with, prepare your company’s materials. Make sure they convey a simple, direct message of your value proposition, history, capabilities, and the desired outcome of the work in the target country. Have them translated and double-checked by the U.S. Commercial Service for content. Print business cards in the language of the country. Translate your company’s website, or at least major portions of it. This will go a long way in demonstrating your company’s commitment to your chosen market.
You are now ready to parachute into the country where you want develop your company’s business. Keep an open mind, develop tons of patience, put a smile on your face, maintain a can-do attitude, and have fun.
After You Arrive
When you land, check in with the U.S. Embassy and register your arrival. Reconfirm your meetings and begin to execute your planned agenda. Remember, in most countries, relationship- building takes precedence over the actual business transactions. At this point, you are there to learn, to observe, to explore the viability of doing business there, and to gather market and competitive intelligence. So ask questions and more questions—but don’t push too hard.
Condescending behavior is absolutely the worst thing you can bring with you into a foreign country. Lose the attitude that says, “I am American, thus I am superior.” Expect no one to trust you at first, and you should avoid being too trusting, as well. Yes, the US is an amazing place. Yes, most of the countries in which you will be doing business are less advanced, poorer, have worse infrastructure, and tougher business conditions. But there are people everywhere who are smart, kind, loyal, proud, professional, and hard-working. Respect them, embrace their culture, open your mind, and you will derive countless financial and personal benefits.
Pay attention to your image. In most countries, especially the emerging ones, image matters, and you will be sized up by the way you are dressed, the watch you wear, and the car that brings you to the meeting. Don’t overdo it, but wearing flannel shirts and jeans with Timberland boots, as I have often seen my American comrades do, is a big no-no. Do not engage in political discussions, even if provoked by your hosts, and do not criticize the host country in any way.
Document Your Meetings
After your meetings, document your discussions, and either send a summary as part of your thank you note or agree to sign a memorandum of understanding. During the meeting, ask which mode of contact works best. Depending on the country and the organization, emails may go unchecked for weeks. Fax machines may be installed on different floors and faxes may take days to find their way to the intended party.
Exercise caution at all times. The threat of industrial espionage is quite real, regardless of the type of business you are in, or the level at which you operate. Do not leave sensitive documents out in the open in your hotel room; also, assume your emails and phones calls are monitored, and that you are being observed at all times. Do not use any flash drives, pens, or other souvenirs picked up at trade shows or corporate presentations. Acting prudently during both business and off hours will save you embarrassment and aggravation in the long-term.
Alexander Gordin is the managing director of the Broad Street Capital Group, New York, a private international Merchant Bank, Trustee of the Princeton Council of World Affairs, and author of the recently released book, Fluent in Foreign Business.