How to Avoid Cultural Business Traps: How To Do International Business Like a Pro
As we all know, effective communication is the basis in any business situation. In order to do so, considering cultural nuances is key. The way we grow up shapes our perception, and sometimes there can be a disconnect between what we believe is effective communication and what others perceive. So, before heading into your next international business call or meeting, make sure to take the time to dive deeper and familiarize yourself with each country’s cultural norms.
All the countries and markets that German Accelerator is active in – Singapore, Germany, India, and the U.S. – there are unique cultural differences in both personal lives and a business environment. Here are some key areas to be keenly aware of before you schedule that next business call or meeting:
Who Makes The Decisions?
Decisions in German companies are typically made by consensus, which contrasts with American culture where there is normally an authoritative decision-maker at the top (either a CEO or President) who makes a decision the entire organization abides by. In Singapore, decisions are very often made by the owner of the company and most functional managers will play more of the role of collating information and presenting the information for the owner’s final decision. “If you want to start a business anywhere in Asia, whether that is Singapore or anywhere in SEA – you really have to understand the culture,” says Toby Ruckert, CEO of UIB and German Accelerator Mentor.
How Are Meetings Organized?
When it comes to how meetings are actually conducted, in most business settings you should expect a detailed agenda prior to the meeting; however, Germans tend to follow it more rigorously than Americans will. Regardless of which country you are located in, meetings typically always open with light chit-chat and it is considered a bit a bit aggressive to dive into business without the initial pleasantries. This is especially true for U.S. based meetings. The reason behind this is summed up perfectly by global sales and marketing expert and one of more than 300 international German Accelerator mentors Melanie Klaschka “People in the U.S. like to buy from those they trust and know, so they first get to know you, and then they talk business”. This is also true for meetings in Asia. Timothy Toh, German Accelerator mentor recommends to “take it more casually. Small talk is important as is getting to know the other party.”
It’s key to not rush straight into the presentation as it is more important to get to know your counterpart than it is to immediately present your slideshow. Invest time in building rapport and credibility with your counterpart/ client during this initial meeting. Hint: Small talk about the weather is always a good default topic and usually works in all markets. 🙂
Are Any Topics Off Limits?
In Singapore and India, business and personal life merge a lot more, and you do not experience the distinct separation as you would be used to in Germany. While it may be commonplace to inquire about income or body weight (really no topic is off-limits) during a meeting in Singapore or India, these topics would be viewed as too invasive in an American or German business setting.
How Quickly Can Meetings Happen Across the Globe?
Americans can quickly schedule last-minute meetings, the American view is that time is money and it is better to be spontaneous than to miss the opportunity for a meeting. German Accelerator mentor Jens Weitzel shared “a venture capitalist once told me ‘in Europe they say that $1 million is a lot of money, and in the Valley (Silicon Valley) they say that one hour is a lot of time.’ When people agree to meet and allot a certain amount of time, you need to be respectful of their time and be prepared to fully utilize this time to network.” Be it responding to emails or accepting networking opportunities, in the U.S. you must be sure to quickly act or the opportunity will pass you by.
Indian organizations and clients will have a more fluid and relaxed notion of time. They mean no offense, but given their experience, they have a different way of dealing with time as navigating through India often has a lot more uncertainties that regularly lead to delays.
According to Timothy Toh, business meetings can happen more spontaneously in Singapore compared to Germany. He said, half-jokingly “In Germany when I meet with people, I plan one or two months in advance. It’s a little bit less spontaneous, I’d say,” compared to Singapore, for example.
Do I Need To Adapt My Presentation Style?
In many facets, German engineering and ingenuity are looked to as the gold standard. “Being from Germany is like a brand in itself – the engineering excellence and reputation for great processes are an advantage for startups in Southeast Asia,” says Dr. Arne Kruse, Managing Director at Rytle, one of German Accelerator’s Southeast Asia program alumni. This same meticulous approach is usually applied to German business presentations. In U.S. business presentations, emphasis is put on the bigger picture rather than the details. There, audiences want to listen to a story and hear your “bold vision” first and then see some data supporting the vision. In Asia even, “backing up your initial data with secondary data is strongly recommended. Sometimes if that is not mentioned explicitly by a startup, there will be follow up questions on how certain numbers or projections were generated,” according to mentor Timothy Toh.
Having experienced this mentality in Silicon Valley, German Accelerator mentor Daniela Caserotto-Leibert states “Americans are born as communicators. Investors love to listen to visionary founders. They like to hear the elevator pitch and the story of the founder to see what kind of person he or she is, why they should invest time and money, and what is in it for them.”
So… What Does “Tell Us Your Vision” Mean?
Having a story-telling element to your presentation is very important in a U.S. business context, especially when it comes to pitching in front of investors. Daniela shares another valuable tip: “the story needs to get to the point because investors here do not have the time and will make their decision often within the first two minutes of listening to you. In Europe in comparison, due diligence is much more appreciated and paid attention to during a first meeting.” When seeking money in the U.S., be sure to paint a big, bold and broad picture of where your company is going – oftentimes German startups are viewed by U.S. investors as having a limited view of where their company can grow. German Accelerator mentor Han Jin (Co-Founder & CEO, Lucid) elaborates on this presentation style difference in our #GACoffeeSession, “Back in German high school, we were trained to pitch something only when we could deliver on it. We could not talk about our big dream because we didn’t know exactly how to get there. There is a notion that you have to underpromise to overdeliver – that’s the German mentality.”
Is Networking Still An Important Skill?
Perhaps the best way to understand and excel through business meetings and presentations in other countries is to immerse yourself fully at that particular location. “The German Accelerator opens up networks that can help startups grow rapidly and very efficiently, ” confirms German Accelerator’s Silicon Valley program alumni company KeyX. Thus, German Accelerator mentor Melanie Klaschka highly recommends “immersing yourself in the culture and environment. Getting out and networking with other people in your respective industry. Finding out about who your competitors are and seeing them at networking events. These kinds of events are great indicators to learn how you should act and how you should not act.”
Another important thing to remember the next time you travel is what German Accelerator mentor and Associate Trainer, Dale Carnegie Singapore Alex Tan says “take the time to understand if there may be religious connections with certain practices, pleading ignorance only reflects on one’s insensitivity and sense of cultural superiority. Being sincere and authentic always helps bridge any cultural divide there may be.” Now that you have some of the basics covered, the next step is to learn how to expertly give and receive feedback in a business setting.