How do we build trust with foreign business colleagues?
by: Jeffrey Frankel
Summary: Building trust is an essential ingredient in every business transaction. Different nationalities have a different idea about what constitutes trust. When dealing with people from other countries we need to know how we can show them they can trust us to do what we say we will do and give them value for money.
|I recently met an Englishman, Dave Foley, who had built up an English language school in a large Japanese city. He marketed his school mainly to companies. An electronic manufacturing company who sent in an enquiry said they had training facilities on their premises, and asked if he would be interested in using these facilities for running English language courses for their employees. He decided this was a good idea, and phoned their head of training to arrange a meeting. He went to the meeting and was surprised to find that the head of training had asked an engineer, as well as one person from each of the following departments, sales, accounts and office equipment to the meeting. After introductions the head of training explained that the largest group of people in the company were engineers, followed by salespeople and accounts people. These were the three groups of people who would be interested in learning and improving their English language skills. Everybody at the meeting talked and asked questions. Dave was very satisfied with the interest shown and the information he received, and readily agreed that they should meet again a week later for a further discussion.
At the appointed time Dave found that, of the people who were at the first meeting, only the accounts person was the same. The same departments were represented, but he only knew one person in the room. Even the Head of Training was not there, his assistant seemed to be running the meeting. Dave was disappointed to find that the discussion seemed to start from scratch. He was asked questions that he had been asked at the first meeting, and he was told things about slide projector availability that differed from what he had been told at the first meeting. At the end they all agreed to meet again the following week. At the third meeting Dave was again surprised and disappointed because there were new people at this meeting and he had to go over ground that he had previously discussed and he received more contradictory information. Again at the end of the meeting a further meeting was arranged.
When he got back to his office Dave phoned the company to talk personally to the Head of Training. He told him he wanted to meet and talk to him, and made it very clear that he wanted to see him alone. At this meeting Dave said he was concerned because at each meeting he goes to there are always different people. The Head of Training said he didn’t understand Dave’s concern. In fact he had been talking to his colleagues and they were concerned that Dave was the only person from his company at the meetings. Dave was puzzled by this remark and said he goes to the meetings alone because he is responsible for getting and arranging the business before the teachers and his other staff get involved. Once the business details have been finalised he will bring his teachers along and will inform his accounts department of the financial arrangement.
Fortunately for Dave, the Head of Training had worked for five years in his companies subsidiary in America and had learnt to be more direct than many Japanese and he said something that surprised Dave. “You are the only person in your company who knows all the details that have been discussed. Your company has not put much effort into the discussions. And if you leave your company, or get ill, we will have no contact in your company. We don’t know if there is anybody else in your company who wants to work with us. If I leave my company you still have about ten people here who are committed to running the language courses. And if somebody is ill there is still another person from his department who knows what has been agreed. What is also important is that by involving the people who want to learn English, who are responsible for the facilities, who know how we are going to pay you, we are finding out the problems that may arise, and we are dealing with the details. Since none of us have met your teachers or your accounts people we don’t know if you have thought out all the issues involved. As soon as the courses start your company may say it has problems.”
Dave told me this really made him think about how to do business in Japan. He was uncomfortable with it, but it made sense.
Before discussing this story let me tell you two others. About 15 years ago I met an American businessman who was always doing deals with different people. I asked him how he can trust so many people. He said “I give them a small job initially and if they do it well I give them something bigger. Each time they succeed I move up a level with them. If they don’t do it well, then I know what their limits are.”
A young Portuguese man was chief operating officer of a start up telecommunications business. I spoke to a senior banker at the bank that had lent the company substantial funds. I said “He is very young and this is his first start up. Why have you lent him so much money?” He replied “His father is … (and he named a very successful leading Portuguese businessman). That’s good enough for me.”
These three stories show how four different people view trust.
The Englishman believes if he is responsible and makes all the decisions he is showing he is trustworthy, and conversely if too many people get involved this dilutes the trust.
The Japanese says when he involves all his colleagues he his proving trust, and conversely he cant put his trust in one person.
The American says performance is proof of trust.
The Portuguese says family connections are evidence of trust.
Building trust is one of many issues that needs to be considered when building business relationships. With some issues, just knowing what the differences are is sufficient for many managers to work out the solutions, with other issues business people need to learn the skills needed to handle day to day situations.
Jeffrey Frankel has run workshops in managing cultural diversity and teamwork for more than four years in Europe and Africa. These workshops provide the participants with essential skills so that they can use their newly gained knowledge immediately after finishing the course.
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