Robert Day, consultant
Succeeding in the American market means that you not only have to understand that market, you need to relate to your American prospects, customers, partners, and employees in a way that they can understand. In this article, we start with few reminders of how you need to be prepared for the US market, and then offer some guidelines for getting your point – and your product – across to Americans.
If you’re new to the US market, then you may need to alter some of your preconceptions. First, it may be a “single market,” but it is not a uniform
one. In almost every sector market segmentation is an art. Second – and you know this already — it is an extremely competitive market; you need
to be fully knowledgeable of your competition, both domestic and foreign. The Americans will expect this.
Third, the country is not referred to as “the States” for nothing. In addition to federal requirements and regulations, there is a large and
increasing amount of state and local regulation affecting product content, labeling, insurance, building requirements, to name a few. Make that a
big part of your market research.
If you’ve done your research and determined that the US market offers a great opportunity to you, then you need to be just as opportunistic as your US counterparts. Be ready to make rapid decisions on product or service, pricing, scheduling, delivery and indeed on any aspect of what you offer. And be equally ready to ask for decisions there and then. You can judge when it‘s most appropriate to move to close a deal – and we’re
not suggesting that you be constantly ‘pushy’– but your willingness to get down to business will be much appreciated.
Use your competitive knowledge to make competitive comparisons when necessary. It’s common in American business, and Americans feel no reluctance to do so when it will help their case. This may not be comfortable for you if you are used to more “gentlemanly” behaviour, but competition is the name of the game.
Be direct and positive
If you know your market and are ready to do business, the critical need now is to make your case effectively to the Americans. Speaking English will get you most of the way there, but there’s more to it than that. Your American counterpart will expect you to be informal, friendly, clear, and direct. That shouldn’t be difficult, but the British communication style can sometimes be perceived by Americans as cautious, non-committal, and what is worse, lacking in confidence. That’s the crucial word.
Your communication with American customers, partners, and colleagues needs to be very…well…American. That means, first, that you need to shed some of the English reserve (if you have any), and be informal and friendly. Get to first names immediately, both with men and women, use the other person’s name from time to time, and say “You’re welcome” when someone says “Thanks.” And, yes, you can even allow yourself to say “Have a great day.” We Americans want to think that you like us, and this sort of friendliness is something that we find reassuring.
Secondly, get to the point quickly. We like a bit of small talk too about the usual subjects of weather and traffic, but not too much. We are used to being sold to, and appreciate someone who gets down to business promptly. It means that you are not going to waste our time.
In my experience, that doesn’t present any major hurdle for a British business person, but it’s the British communication style that can sometimes be off-putting to an American. Phrases that you British have no trouble deciphering, such as “You might want to consider…” and “That’s not quite what we were looking for”— or even “I’ll bear that in mind” can be very confusing to many Yanks.
We use those phrases from time to time as well, but in general, they are less common in business discourse here. You need to be able to make clear unambiguously positive statements about yourself, your firm, and your product or service. To you this may feel uncomfortably like hype, but to an American, anyone not able or willing to promote him/herself strongly comes across as lacking in — There’s that word again — confidence.
“Let’s Make a Deal!” – Negotiating with Americans
If you’ve gotten to the point where your American prospects want to buy, it’s time to negotiate. A few pointers may help here. As we’ve mentioned earlier be ready to discuss details quickly and specifically. Americans aren’t generally interested in “agreements in principle” (although this is sometimes done, for example in announcing various kinds of partnership/alliance arrangements); your counterpart wants a business commitment, not a promise to keep talking.
Americans view a negotiation as fundamentally competitive, not collaborative. But as with other interactions in American, keeping the tone friendly and informal is important, even if you’re playing “hardball” with the issues. Balance is essential. By all means, play some golf and enjoy a good meal and a few drinks (though probably fewer than in Britain) with your US prospects and partners, but don’t be surprised that while
the tone of your negotiation may be friendly, the substance is a no-nonsense dual over details.
“Good to go?”
A few final bits of advice to help you in building relationships with Americans: You may find yourself dealing with women in business in the USA somewhat more frequently than might be the case in the UK. There is absolutely no need to interact with them any differently than you
would with a male. None whatsoever. Humour doesn’t travel well, even the celebrated and much respected British sense of humour. So leave the ethnic or gender-based jokes out of your social intercourse.
At the moment, the British image in the USA is positive, as seen through the Brit-accent voiceovers selling all sorts of products, and the British presenters on many TV shows. The days when the bad guy generally had a British accent (Recall Alan Wickman in “Die Hard,” and others.) seem to be behind us. So don’t mess up that good image with social faux pas.
Take the trouble to learn about American sports: Basketball, (American) football, baseball. Unless you are a rare British fan of these sports, you don’t have to try to be an expert. But knowing enough to ask some intelligent questions or make an observation or two makes you a great conversation starter.
The American Comfort Zone
We don’t want to overestimate the difficulties of making your case to Americans. As with all new and different markets, understanding that market, and having a clear value proposition to offer are the keys. But just being British does not mean that you have any advantage over a German, Japanese or Chinese competitor. Your Americans friends will judge you partly on how comfortable they feel doing business with you. We hope that our suggestions here will enable you to enter their “comfort zone.” Good luck.
Farnham Castle is a world leader in Intercultural Business Skills training and Global Mobility Programmes and can help with more detailed briefings on individual cultures. Farnham Castle provides a comprehensive range of face to face, live web-based and Podcast format programmes designed
to provide the cross- cultural skills and understanding required to be more effective in the global business environment.