By Ed Marsh
We all understand the allure of traveling to exotic places to do business, and the corresponding travel hassles that might occur. But just how important is business travel to achieving business objectives?
Very important, according to the inaugural American Express Business Travel Survey, which asked U.S. business travelers to shed light on the benefits and pitfalls of business travel. Fifty-two percent of respondents cited face-to-face meetings as essential to achieving business objectives, 36 percent ranked it as important to their career development and 23 percent said it’s an important tool in helping to meet or exceed business targets. The bottom line? Business travel is critical to international business success and professional development.
Challenges inherent to international sales make business travel especially important. Effective communication and strong relationships form the foundation for business in many cultures, and face-to-face meetings are important opportunities to cultivate those connections. This brings to mind a recent conversation I had with an exporter who asked rhetorically, “Are you willing to have an $8,000 cup of coffee?” This question reflects just how important traveling and building relationships are to international business.
Many of the survey respondents would welcome that cup of coffee, along with trying new foods (37%), which is one of the widely appreciated benefits of international travel. Many also report valuing the opportunity to expand their cultural EQ (emotional intelligence). However, in addition to all the benefits, international business travel also creates opportunities for cultural mishaps. A full 46 percent of survey respondents acknowledged making a cultural faux pas while traveling abroad—and others may not have even realized they’ve made one at some point too. Based on the survey insights, and the collective experience of the respondents, there are some simple proactive steps travelers can take to avoid making similar mistakes, including doing some pre-travel research, being aware of cultural norms and acknowledging local business customs.
Research early & widely: Sweat the details
Productive international business travel starts with thorough research. Eighty-six percent of respondents credited proactive research with helping them achieve their business objectives, and nearly 40 percent of surveyed travelers pay particular attention to local business customs as they prepare for their first trip to a new country.
Culture strongly influences business customs. Many aspects which we tend to take for granted can impact the success of a trip and business meetings. The dress code and formality in conversation and greetings are simple examples. Savvy travelers are prepared for these differences and are well-rehearsed in how to greet and speak with their counterparts. Direct communication is often more familiar to U.S. business executives, but it can be unwelcomed in markets where safer, vaguer dialog is common. Similarly, meetings may be quite punctual in one market while time is more relaxed in another. Negotiations may be direct and aggressive, or very casual and gentle. In some cultures, extensive pre-business conversation is customary – in fact, it might even take several trips and meetings before substantive business is discussed.
Observe and respond – don’t just react
We often react to situations reflexively. That helps us cope in some situations, but our cultural habits and expectations may conflict in unexpected ways with our business counterparts’. Thus, it’s important to observe a situation as an almost detached spectator. By carefully observing people and situations, we create a perspective and a pause that allows us to digest circumstances with both introspection and empathy.
Travelers who have done their research and who are able to observe situations with a detached perspective can more easily accommodate and adapt to local expectations. Remember that your foreign counterparts may not be detached observers themselves and might feel uncomfortable if your business habits don’t mirror their habits. Attention to simple cultural expectations, however, overcomes much of the risk of misunderstanding. For example, ensure that the right people on your team attend a meeting, and that they speak to the right people at the correct times with appropriate respect. This approach is critical to success when U.S. business executives meet foreign counterparts who may be less direct and subtler in communication.
Be flexible, but be you
Experienced travelers know how to adapt to differences in business culture, but they’re careful not to compromise their own. Sometimes cultural norms conflict with our companies’ norms, and U.S. laws and business practices may also prevent us from adapting to certain cultural practices or customs. It’s important to be aware of conflicts like this to guard the legal and cultural obligations we have to our businesses and ourselves.
Fortunately, most of the adaptations successful international business travelers make are simple modifications of style. Thirty-nine percent of respondents listed communication styles as a top area of focus. Rapport building during introductory conversation (17%) and the use/nature of meeting agendas (18%) are other areas that experienced travelers know can be adapted to yield more productive meetings.
Cultural differences in communication styles and norms also highlight the importance of travel and face-to-face meetings. While telephone, email and messaging apps provide convenient and inexpensive channels of communication, they limit our ability to understand the impact of tone, inflection and style, which can lead to unnecessary miscommunications.
Business Travel: Good for business and for you
Survey respondents made it clear: pre-trip research and preparation are two of the keys to successful business meetings. Not only do they set executives up for success, they protect against risks including being perceived as rude or ignorant (62%), struggling to build relationships (48%) or incurring a financial loss to the business (26%).
The bottom line is simple – be in the know before you go. Advance preparation makes travel less stressful, and more productive and enjoyable. Research and cultural flexibility supports business goals and helps travelers to proactively adapt in appropriate ways while at the same time preparing them for challenges.
Ed Marsh is the exporting advisor to American Express Grow Global℠, which brings together global trade experts, exporting officials, and business leaders to help U.S. small and middle market companies grow their businesses in international markets.