And everyone was perfectly on time ... Reflections from a market visit trip across latin America

It was the first time my British manufacturing client, an award-winning SME from Yorkshire and also a client of Strong and Herd, visited Latin America. They had invested in market research and in a thorough distributor recruitment exercise that together had taken me exactly a year. The pressure was on. The whole point of the trip was to recruit one distributor in each of three key markets: Chile, Peru and Colombia. Flying back to Uruguay, it occurred to me that a lot was learnt on this trip that I would like to share with you...

First of all, stereotypes hardly worked. The “mañana, mañana” attitude that so many Brits associate with Latin America was clearly not appropriate. Business meetings were highly professional, everyone was expecting us and, as both my client and I pointed out, everyone was perfectly on time.

Language was a bit more of a mismatch. Some potential distributors could speak English pretty fluently, but there was always someone asked to join the meeting who wouldn’t. Perhaps a sales assistant or a technical manager. Thankfully, rather than keeping quiet on the corner or relying on constant interpreting, I was able, as a fluent speaker of both English and Spanish, to involve them in the conversations. Communication, as we all know, is highly non-verbal, but to interpret non-verbal cues requires some cultural sensitivity. As a team, we could spot so much more of what was going on, interpret it and act accordingly. There was a lot of respect also about the fact that we had translated our marketing materials into Spanish and that we had made the effort to communicate with them in their native language.

My client was overwhelmed by the overall friendliness and openness of everyone he met. He wasn’t culturally shocked. He felt Latin America is nowhere near as “exotic” as a lot of people in the UK imagine. Business is a common language. And there were no scares, despite the (ignorant?) comments from the UK about us travelling to Medellin, often seen as the drug capital of the world and now an award-winning city chosen by the New York Times as the most innovative city on the planet. We felt safe, with the necessary precautions, like anywhere else.

One great lesson was the importance of having built relationships before landing in each market. I have been involved in “trade missions” that basically “parachute” foreign business people into Latin America and most don’t work or require an awful lot of effort during the visit and afterwards. They are usually not taken seriously by local business people. Having done so much preparatory work and having built relationships, the only challenge was to consolidate those relationships with a face-to-face meeting. We weren’t starting from scratch, and that paid off.

On another level, arranging the logistics for the trip, to cover the cities of Santiago, Lima, Bogota and Medellin in five days was challenging. Flights are expensive and irregular. Clearly better than 10 years ago, but distances are huge. Add to that having to adapt to weather and altitude changes, and you can see how tricky it could be. But again, preparation and research paid off and everything went according to plan. That was greatly due to the professionalism and efficiency of a Latin American airline that would put most European airlines to shame.

The visit, and I quote my client was a “huge success”. We achieved what we had planned. And, guess what? It was all done on time. The South American way.


Written on 25th July 2013 by Gabriela Castro - Fontoura, S&H LLP Associate Director at Sunny Sky Solutions (

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