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Don’t Let Assumptions Trip Up Your International Business

When business owners are working overseas, failing to have clear conversations about how work is accomplished can lead to unexpected obstacles.

Proprietors should recognize their own assumptions and address specifics with their international business partners and foreign employees. "Have a real meeting - face-to-face - at the very beginning, to learn about each other and to discuss the way the tasks will be done," says Eric Brunelle, a professor of management at HEC Montréal, a leading international business school in Canada. "It's the moment to state the where, the when, and - if necessary - the how."

If an entrepreneur wants to take courses or hire an international business coach to learn about business practices in another culture, he or she can use a trusted online foreign exchange service to calculate currency exchange rates and submit bank-to-bank money transfers for international payments.

Proprietors should recognize their own assumptions and address specifics with their international business partners and foreign employees.

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Whether an in-person meeting is an option, employers can follow these steps to establish business practices for foreign employees working overseas.

Understand Response Times

How quickly an employee or business partner is expected to answer an email depends on whom you ask. "Responsive in America means I've got 48 hours to get back to you, and if I don't, I'm totally complacent or deeply incompetent," says Allyson Stewart-Allen, program director with Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford and chief executive at International Marketing Partners, a consulting firm helping businesses internationalize. In some other parts of the world, however, appropriate responsiveness is closer to a week's time, she says.  

Stewart-Allen, who also owns a consulting firm that helps U.S. businesses grow to working overseas in Europe, and vice versa, suggests that business owners learn to work within local norms. In Tanzania, for example, broadband Internet service is unreliable, and expecting a same-day response to an email would be unreasonable, she says.

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Build Accountable Business Relationships

Ensuring accountability is also key. Ted and Christi Scofield run Icebreaker Entertainment LLC, a New York-based multi-brand consumer-products company with licensed products for sale in major retailers, ranging from school supplies to beverage coolies. They hired a computer-programming company in Pakistan a few years ago to develop an app for a game based on their product slogans. After submitting the specs online, they sent a down payment and waited, assuming the programmers were hard at work.

"All the connection was simply electronic," says Mr. Scofield, chief operating officer and general counsel. "There was no control and no accountability." The programmers missed the deadline by three months, meaning the app couldn't be released during the holiday season.

The Scofields severed the relationship, and now they get to know their international business partners before making a commitment. "We meet face-to-face with our overseas licensing partners, typically at trade shows, for example the Brand Licensing Europe show in London," Mr. Scofield says. "We no longer hire manufacturing partners directly; our licensing partners have the relationship and are responsible."

Learn Local Business Practices

One of Stewart-Allen's consulting clients sent an American executive to build up its London office. Before he arrived in the U.K., the executive was briefed on British business culture. "It's more about relationships and trust-building than getting stuff done," Stewart-Allen says. However, when the executive showed up in London, he tried to ram through his agenda and damaged his company's reputation. The executive was supposed to be in the U.K. for three years, but he was recalled after two and replaced by a Londoner.

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