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Different ways of doing business across borders:Understanding the local business culture when exporting

What you’ll learn

  • how you'd research the culture in your chosen market
  • the different types of business culture
  • practical steps you'd take to respect your market's business culture

How business practices vary in different markets

Once you’ve decided which market you want to target, you’ll need to begin preparing to do business there. It’s tempting to think that business practices are the same elsewhere as in the UK, but they can often be very different. Without understanding, you could accidentally offend a potential buyer. There’s a much greater chance of a business deal happening if you've taken the time to establish a rapport and build credibility.

Build your confidence through preparation

Don’t underestimate the time this will take – it’s time worth investing.

Online research is a good place to start. All our market guides have a section on business culture that you can review. But don’t rely solely on online research.

Talk to people who have been there. Use your network. Are there other business owners in your area who aren’t direct competitors, who can share some insight? What did they learn? Contact your local Department for International Trade (DIT) office – they often have fact sheets on the local culture. They can also put you in touch with the British embassy in the country.

If it’s your first time exporting, you may also want to think about starting in a country with a similar business culture to the UK. Ireland and the Netherlands could be good places to start, as they have a large English-speaking population, the market isn’t big enough to be daunting, and they're close by.

Check the business culture

Does the market you’re entering have a relationship or a transactional business culture? Broadly speaking, in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East the business culture is relationship-based – people like to get to know you before doing business with you. That might mean that it takes half a dozen meetings before you begin discussing terms.

In the United States, Europe and Australia, there is more of a transactional culture where people like to get to the point and get down to business. 

Adapt your meeting style

Make sure you’re ready for any business meetings, whether in-person or virtual. Do you know how people greet each other, the dress codes and any protocols for giving business cards and gifts? You may need to adjust your style to build trust. 

In China, for example, there's a specific protocol for handing over business cards. You hold it by the edges and present it. And when you’re given one, you spend time looking over it thoroughly – don’t just pop it in your pocket.

It’s a good idea to learn more about general customs, not just business ones, so that you don’t offend. In the Middle East, for example, it’s offensive to show the soles of your shoes, which you could easily do if your legs were crossed.    

If you realise you’ve made a mistake, say sorry and try to put things right. You might be able to win that business despite your mishap, if your product is right for them.

And remember, approaches to punctuality can vary. In all cases, you should arrive on time as a mark of respect. But be prepared to wait. In some countries, it’s accepted that meetings may start later than planned. 

Also, don’t forget to be confident. The UK has a good reputation for quality products and for reliability. Be proud of what you’re offering.

Prepare for different payment terms

While it’s fairly standard to have 30-day payment terms in the UK, other countries often do things differently.  For example, in France and Spain, you should expect longer terms, such as 90 days, or even 120 days. Whereas in Germany, it could be as short as 10 days. You’ll want to know what’s normal in that country, and then you can negotiate if needed. Again, our market guides will advise of differences in payment terms.

Learn a bit of the language

When it comes to business culture, language is important – but it’s not a deal-breaker. Learn a few key words to show respect at the start. The rest of the business meeting can then carry on in the language both sides are most comfortable with. If you need more support, look for a local translator who can help, but ensure they're fluent in English too, and can understand any technical details about your product or service. The local British embassy will have a list of interpreters.

Culture is far more important than language. Language is key for a website or translations, but you can get around that with a good translator or interpreter. Culture you can’t get around.

International trade adviser

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