How to Take Great Service Global

It's a big world -- the U.S. is only about 5% of it -- with potential customers everywhere. Fortunately for mom-and-pop shops, technology has made it easier to reach them. You can be based in Toledo and open for business in Tokyo, which opens doors to significant growth and acts as an excellent hedge against domestic downturns. But just because you can provide service all over the world doesn't mean you're necessarily providing world-class service.

I've been doing business internationally either as a buyer or seller, for 20 years, and I advise or consult other small businesses that want to sell overseas. I have found that when companies and business people cross cultures, they tend to make four mistakes that can have a huge impact on the perceived quality of their service abroad:

• They use casual language and business-speak that doesn't translate. English may be the international language of business, but that doesn't give you permission to speak or write the way you would to your buddies in the office or even your customer in Cleveland. Non-native speakers often take what you say literally, so avoid slang, idioms, and business clichés. Above all, don't act like an obnoxious tourist and expect the world to communicate the way you do or adapt to your style.

• They assume instant familiarity. We have our own ways of establishing relationships, BS-ing, buying, and selling in the U.S. But most of them don't travel well, and unfortunately too many of us don't know or care about that. You wouldn't (I hope) open a used car lot in Taiwan, put your arm around a stranger and bark, "You know, you'd look great behind the wheel... what's it gonna take to get you into this car today?" And the same holds true if you are working with an international customer on the phone or via e-mail. In most other countries, the instant familiarity we are accustomed to is not typical or even comfortable. Almost everywhere else in the world, relationship building in business is a slow and thoughtful process.

In my early years of doing business overseas, I got a fax from a customer in Europe, someone I knew well. I hand-wrote a nice reply at the bottom of his fax and sent it back. He told me how rude it was of me to write on his fax and not take the time to type a proper reply. At home, my gesture would have been considered personal and friendly. But to this gentleman, it was disrespectful. The lesson: Make no assumptions. Unless/until you have built a more personal relationship with the person, keep your transactions straightforward, businesslike, and unerringly polite.

Another example: Just because a customer from Germany signs his note "Werner," doesn't mean it's OK to write back, "Dear Werner" (unless, of course, he hasn't provided a last name). Use Mr. or Ms. and a surname until you feel sure that it's alright not to. If you are not positive of gender, a one-minute Google search will almost always tell you.

• They don't take the time to understand the workings of international trade. Overseas customers are often more savvy on global commerce and logistics, as they typically deal with many more international transactions. So be sure you understand the nuances of shipping, duties, currency, documentation, and payment/banking matters. Resources like customs brokers, freight forwarders, and government agencies can help you; take advantage of their expertise. If appropriate to your business, get intimate with Incoterms. For example, if you don't know what "FOB" means, you're not ready to be an importer or exporter. So study up. Here's a nice, simple cheat sheet I found online.

• They stay home. If you are selling handmade jewelry to individual consumers, there's no need to leave your computer. But if you are importing, sourcing, or exporting at a significant level, you are doing yourself a huge disservice if you don't visit the place(s) where the rubber meets the road.

Establishing a face-to-face connection with overseas contacts changes everything -- it infuses a relationship with trust, loyalty, friendship -- and is every bit as relevant a form of "providing good service" as any other. Meeting in person often encourages people to do more for each other, to feel a sense of obligation and the desire to build a long-term relationship. I shake my head whenever I meet someone whose entire business depends on a foreign relationship, yet he's never once visited the country or people that are so critical to the operation. I have never regretted making the investment of getting on a plane and breaking bread with the human beings on the other side of all those e-mails. So GO!

A little courtesy, education, and common sense go a long way towards building successful and rewarding international relationships. Want more tips? Check out this excellent piece I found on how to communicate across cultures. I'd love to hear your own experiences/thoughts/advice on international business.

(Flickr photo by BigBlackBox)