Cultural and Language Barriers of Doing Business Abroad
“Lost in Translation.” It’s not only the name of a very fine movie starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson; it’s also what can happen to the meaning of your very important business documents and relationships. You may think the field of outsourced-manufacturing is less prone to language and cultural barriers because of its basis in drawings and specifications, but there are plenty of subtleties to trip up a budding international business relationship. Consider these areas of potential conflict.
The western style of business is not always well received in the rest of the world. Many international supply relationships depend on building personal relationships, and getting straight to business without respecting local cultures can undermine the quality of the relationship or scuttle it entirely.
Are gifts expected or shunned? What kind of message does a gift send? How are business cards presented? Is it customary to speak only to rank and not above corresponding rank? Are you aware of particular gestures that are benign in America but offensive in another country, such as showing the sole of your shoe in certain Middle Eastern nations? Homework is required to prevent an embarrassing faux pas.
You may still be able to establish a business relationship even if you unwittingly insult your suppliers—assuming that you bring enough value to the supplier that they are willing to put up with your affronts. However, you certainly won’t get the full value out of the relationship. The supplier is unlikely to be motivated to look for win-win situations to improve cost or quality, and will simply do the minimum that is required to meet your specifications.
International supply agreements can be extremely difficult without a solid understanding of the language. Legalese is difficult enough in a native language, much less in a translated one. It’s important to have an understanding of not only the literal translation of the agreement, but also how the wording can be interpreted differently—especially if the foreign country has jurisdiction over any dispute.
Beware of any assumptions. For example, you may assume exclusivity of a specific part, but unless that’s specified up front in clearly understandable language, a supply deal can fall apart through miscommunication. You may be quoted a price based on an assumption that the factory can disperse new tooling costs among multiple customers for that part. In the end, one or both parties will be disappointed in the experience when the situation could have been easily clarified up-front.
Shipping options are generally straightforward and accessible in English, but production schedules are not necessarily so. Traditional downtimes, vacations, and events in other countries can catch you by surprise if you don’t plan for them in advance and set up an ordering and inventory schedule that accommodates them.
An experienced supplier can warn you about traditional cultural downtimes like Golden Week in China or Japan and help you plan your orders and inventory accordingly so your supply of critical parts is not interrupted. They will also be able to inform you that Golden Week in China is completely different and held at a different time than Golden Week in Japan. Don’t make assumptions and shortcut your cultural research.
It’s true that blueprints and specifications have a common language. However, many specifications contain subjective information as well as hard numbers and tolerances. Visual acceptance criteria are an excellent example. Even with pictures as a guideline, you must be careful that any corresponding verbiage translates well in order to prevent confusion.
Language barriers can preclude you from establishing the sort of collaborative relationship that can help a supplier spot mistakes in your specifications, or provide insight that can improve your product or make it more cost-effective to manufacture.
Continuous improvement philosophy efforts can be hampered by both language and cultural factors. The language barrier is an obvious pitfall, but cultural factors can also get in the way of continuous improvement when the supplier’s culture leans toward a hierarchical relationship instead of collaboration on projects. If you want a collaborative environment, you have to clearly communicate that message to your supplier.
Communication of Changes
You may be able to properly communicate specification changes, but can you properly communicate changes in your supply requirements? If your tone does not match your wording, foreign suppliers may misinterpret your sense of urgency. Similarly, without an understanding of the supplier’s operations, you may not realize that you are asking for something that is literally impossible or that takes a greater toll on the supplier than you realize—for example, asking them for a change that requires completely new tooling costs.
Without a language barrier, you are far more likely to be able to find a compromise position that meets the needs of both sides to the extent possible. With one, you could be reduced to a fruitless screaming match over the phone, and all you will gain is a new vocabulary of foreign swear words.
Avoid the Barriers
A simple way to avoid the cultural and language barriers of overseas business transactions is to have a trusted partner to deal with them for you. In the field of outsourced manufacturing, Smartrend Manufacturing Group can help you navigate these potential pitfalls and realize the full benefits that international manufacturing can bring to your business.
We offer a comprehensive set of services from design and prototyping assistance all the way to customized local direct supply systems to supply your product on time. Our in-country technical staff ensures that your quality standards are met and that any changes are correctly interpreted and implemented.
It’s never a bad idea to learn about and understand business etiquette in foreign countries—but it’s nice not to have to depend on your etiquette skills to get the high quality parts that you need at a reasonable price. There’s only so many foreign customs and toasts that you can keep straight without getting into trouble.