Working with Americans - A Case Study

We all know each market or country in the world possesses its own cultural and business identity. For me it is both the challenge and diversity that continue to maintain my interest in working internationally. I was posted to the USA for over five years and found this massive market to be particularly demanding yet rewarding when working day in and day out with Americans. Before I go any further I must confess that I enjoyed every minute, even the frustrating occasions.

I guess it depends upon one’s own makeup. I enjoyed the business environment where the general rule was to get things done – speedily, properly and profitably. However being a Brit meant I had to make many adaptations to my behaviour and business work practices.

In the limited space available I will discuss a few examples that particularly impacted on my work. They are in no order of priority but listed as they come to mind.

Arguably I believe Americans work harder than say the British.  They start work earlier and finish later. It is well known that they take far fewer holidays a year both public and personal.

This approach translates into one particular business practice – the working breakfast. This event is business with breakfast, not the other way round. Be prepared to start early as the meeting is intended to expand the working day but in a conducive atmosphere. You do need to develop skills to juggle business papers with food and manage your agenda. There is of course the ‘working’ lunch and the ’working’ dinner. The same rules apply.

Taking meetings in general there are a number of characteristics to take into account. Americans

communicate feelings openly and freely, are straightforward and direct, are action-orientated, are interested in transactions (doing deals) rather than the more relationship approach in the UK Deadlines do mean deadlines, it is critical to meet all time schedules by being prompt and responsive.

I have found Americans generally to be very positive and prefer to concentrate on getting things done rather than waste time on finding ways on not doing things.  The pace of meetings is generally quite speedy as compared with Europe. Meetings start with dealing with the issues in hand; small talk is left for the end, if at all. The mantra is; time is money. Can you sell your product in seven words? If not, think again. Always emphasis why your product is better value for money and how it can help

On a legal point, as a matter of normal business practice attorneys will vet most transactions.

A number of quick tips include ask for what you want, don’t dither; ask questions; show sincere interest and preparedness; maintain regular contact; display responsiveness. US buyers have a choice. They demand and expect service or will seek an alternative, domestic or foreign.

Features that are regarded as ‘good’ include patriotism, promptness, ambition, achievement, success, new, selling, marketing, promoting, and optimism. Matters that are regarded bad or negative can include old, obsolete, low-tech, unfashionable and pessimism.

In international terms, they can be insular with a relatively low geographic knowledge, and appreciation of world events. Remember only a relatively small proportion of Americans have passports (7% at last estimates and only 25% of Congress members!)

For me the main relationship that had to be cultivated was with my US distributor. The owner was a Californian whilst his main partner hailed from Ohio which provided regional characteristics to their personalities and decision making. Both had been long established entrepreneurs and possessed much local experience in my industry.

There was no doubt there was an initial reluctance to accept a ‘Brit, but over a reasonably short time relationships mellowed to one of mutual respect. I believe this was primarily achieved by acting upon some of the points listed earlier – getting things done when promised, being readily available at short notice to handle issues and always seeking solutions that clearly benefited both parties.

Later on in our trading relationship, a critical situation occurred where the solution partly lay in their hands. Legally they could refrain from cooperating but we were able to happily negotiate and agree a joint solution. I believe that if this situation had occurred at the start of our relationship then it would have been protracted and maybe unsuccessful.

I also believe that part of the reason was that I had deliberately immersed myself into the American business culture. From the outset I tried to conform to local practice, something I continue today even though I now work out of the UK.

There are many practical things you need to do to ensure you adapt. The basic being using letter size paper (8.5 in by 11 in, not A4). I always ensure any email attachment conforms as well. I always used the American spelling of words and set my spellcheckers accordingly so the ‘s’ in organised became a ‘z’ and ‘labour’ became ‘labor’ and so on.

Do your homework on key business phrases -“to table” means to discuss NOW, “to bomb” means to fail disastrously. Other fundamentals to take into account include: 1 Imperial gallon =1.2 US gallons; temperature in Fahrenheit scale, not Celsius; dates are in order of month, day and year; time is on am / pm basis, not 24 hour.

On a lighter note it took me some time to realise that the ground floor was the first floor and so on. I note below a few of the more common differences in the interpretation of English:

American English British English
Apartment Flat
ATM Cashpoint
Doctor’s / Dentist’s office Surgery
Drugstore / Pharmacy Chemist shop
Elevator Lift
Lease Rent
Liquor Spirits
Mail Post
Mutual Fund Unit Trust
Parking lot Car park
Raincheck Postponement
Realtor Estate Agent
Schedule Timetable
Subway Underground
Truck Lorry
Two weeks Fortnight
Vacation Holiday
Zero Nought
Zip code Postal Code
Candy Sweets
Cookie Biscuit
Dessert Pudding
French Fries Chips
Potato Chips Crisps
Stand in line Queue up
Take out Take away
Bills Paper money
Dollar fifty $1.50
Trunk Boot
Gas Petrol
Onlooker delay! Rubbernecking!

And finally when going to a sports event, it is not the home team versus the away team but team A at (away to) team B. The away team is listed first followed by the home team. I missed a few games because of this.

I hope that in this short article I have highlighted a number of behavioural differences to certainly the British style. As with any market, to be successful one needs to adapt, get involved and ideally enjoy the relationships with Americans.

Written 21st November 2013 by Dick Brentnall S&H LLP Associate/ Trainer

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