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Researching Local Business Customs

When embarking on a quick getaway overseas, a rudimentary knowledge of the local culture and customs may be all an individual needs to get by. However, when it comes to international business and working in a foreign market, a little due diligence can go a long way.

To work with vendors, gain customers and spur profits across cultures, it’s critical for business owners to have a deeper knowledge of the commercial practices and customs of the local culture where they are looking to do business.

Consult a Colleague

One of the quickest ways to gain insight into the business customs of a local culture is to canvas the experiences of trusted colleagues and associates who have visited the country before, says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of the Money Crashers financial advice website based in Chicago. “Your best bet is to first talk with any friends or business associates who may be from the country you’ll be visiting,” says Schrage, who spent two months touring Asia last spring while meeting with potential business partners. Three important questions to ask colleagues include:

“Pick one biography of a great leader, one recent political history, and two or three of their best novels — one historical and two current.”

— David Iwinski, managing director of Blue Water Growth

1.     What are the cultural or religious faux pas to be avoided?

2.     What is customary attire in business situations?

3.     What is the business culture like?

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Read a Book — or Five

Another way to familiarize oneself with a different culture is to consult a book on the topic. Vince Scacchitti, a partner with the international supply-chain consultancy eXegy Partners in Lexington, Mass., recommends Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands by Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway. This book covers basic business practices and insights for countries such as China and India.

David Iwinski, managing director of Blue Water Growth, a Pittsburgh-based global business-consulting firm that helps other firms build a presence in Asia, goes even further in his recommended reading list. “Pick one biography of a great leader, one recent political history, and two or three of their best novels — one historical and two current,” he says. “You’ll then be reasonably dialed in to local culture.”

Take a Class

After consulting colleagues and literature, a business owner’s next step to becoming well versed in the ways of another culture is to take a class on cross-cultural business practices, says Scacchitti, whose firm offers a three-day course on international business negotiations. Tuition for these types of courses will vary depending on the level of complexity and content that is covered, as well as the length of the course, Scacchitti says.

If these classes are taken abroad, business owners can turn to a trusted online foreign exchange service to help conduct money transfers for tuition payments. In addition to handling international payments for classes and other business related expenses — such as settling invoices and paying staff — an online foreign exchange provider should offer relevant resources and helpful advice to help simplify money transfers and cross-border money management.

Take Your Cue from Others

While thorough research can prepare international business owners for many situations, there will always be unknown nuances to proper etiquette. In these situations, business owners can avoid some gaffs by following the lead of their international business partners.

Before she embarked on a 10-day business trip to Tunisia, Dana Marlowe thought she was ready to navigate the country’s North African strict religious culture. As the principal partner at an accessibility IT consulting firm, Marlowe prepared for her keynote address at an international conference by reading two guidebooks covering local business customs.

During her research, she discovered that it was improper for non-Muslims to enter a mosque. But at one point on her trip, she was invited to do just that because they assumed she was Muslim. Marlowe hesitated, and eventually caused a scene when she refused to enter because she wanted to show respect toward all religions. In this case, Marlowe was put in an awkward position because she chose to follow her research rather than the suggestions of her customers. In retrospect, Marlowe wishes she’d simply avoided the situation by staying in the car.

Along with the new sights, sounds and opportunities of international business ventures, there is also the possibility of accidently contradicting cultural norms. By conducting research ahead of time and paying close attention to the reactions of local business partners, it’s possible to minimize missteps while making the most of new experiences.

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