10 tips to getting over the American stigma overseas

The term “America” or “American” will always strike emotion overseas. Many other countries seem more neutral, but the United States has its history, its power and its media.

Now more than ever, the United States is a controversial business ally. In addition to fighting two wars, we have a declining stock market, CEOs going to jail, widespread corruption in industry, banks that can’t lend and the biggest job losses in decades.

How then, can we possible sell our wares abroad? How can we overcome the new stigmas that are being piled onto the old ones?

Below are some survival tips for those firms that need overseas marketplaces. None of them are panaceas, (as there isn’t a single cure to our damaged reputation).

No moralizing: Companies and universities throughout the United States are continually talking about corporate governance and business ethics. Some universities teach courses on it. Firms are discussing it more and more. The sad truth is that few people believe it. Few people overseas ever believed that the United States was the moral and ethical leader of the world.
Now with constant scandals, CEOs taking bonuses the night before they receive government aid and a complete mismanagement of taxpayer funds, there is doubt we can ever talk about ethics without being laughed at.

If you want to be taken seriously overseas, don’t talk about your corporate ethics. Ethics are a suit of clothes anyway, so it’s prudent to remember that an overseas customer may have different ethics than you and still consider himself to be ethical.

Get local: The less you are an American, the less baggage you carry with you. If you can establish your firm as a local firm in your market (for example: you become a German firm in Germany), you will be seen as local. Localize your website, your marketing materials, your product and your staff. Let your German employees deal with your German customers.

Find a partner: If you can wrap your product in a foreign partner’s wrapping, you are doing better. Better for you to supply the technology to a Japanese website, or put your cereal into a French box, than to go it alone. The more French you appear to be, the more likely your French customers will buy.

Go person to person: Because international business is done though relationship, it’s time to think of yourself (not your firm or your country) as the business partner. You may be trapped in a country with controversy, and your counterpart may be living in an impoverished country, but it’s the two of you that have the bond, not your respective countries.

Bank overseas: One of the first things that a firm selling abroad should do is have a local banking relationship. Make it easy for your clients to pay you locally. Ask them which bank they prefer to do business with. This will enhance transaction ease and trust at the same time.
Remember we aren’t alone: If you’re realistic, you are carrying a sense of embarrassment with you. Because the current recession is indeed global, your counterpart’s country has its own woes and issues.

If you can remember that whomever you meet may have a sense of shame greater than yours, you can work on future cooperation instead of assigning blame.

Use “power distance” to your advantage: Power distance refers to the emotional distance between a citizen and those who govern the citizen. We call our president “Mr.” and critique him constantly (low power distance). We refer to our CEOs by name (often first names). Increasing that power distance helps separate you from your leaders. By contrast, the leader in Iran is called Ayatallah (reflection of Allah).

Offer financing: With trust at an all-time low, be ready to finance your deals for your clients. If you are shipping sports drinks to Mexico, you may not get paid until way after the drink is consumed. Be ready to wait and assist your clients in financing.

Be prepared to admit it: Telling an overseas business person that you don’t wish to discuss politics is the same as saying “I don’t want to know you.” Prepare to play the diplomatic role and be questioned on U.S. politics, progress and other issues. Admit our wrongdoings and ask for forgiveness.

Don’t take it personally: Listening to someone badmouth your country, your company, your family or even your street isn’t easy. Remember, most people have their opinions shaped. Few take the time to realize that while we have many firms in trouble, we also have firms that provide good wages, clean jobs and add value to society. We have a recession; things haven’t grinded to a haut.

These pointers should be used at the best of times to help with international market shares. They are certainly necessary at the worst of times.

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