When I recently wrote on “8 suggestions on behavior when conducting business in foreign countries” http://bit.ly/aBrsCv one reader recommended that I write a similar piece on doing business in the U.S. Here it is.
1. Learn to accept the informality of being called by your first name immediately. No disrespect is intended. Americans enjoy informality and consider it friendly.
2. In business meetings, always dress your way until you are certain that you understand your industry’s local and regional style. Why? Because you won’t easily figure out the unspoken rules of when and how to be “casual,” or what “business casual” might mean, and how these terms apply to men vs. women. Beyond that, you will find these terms slightly different in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Atlanta. Also, industries approach dress differently – traditional industries like banking or insurance are more conservative everywhere, while technology and entertainment are more casual (but with understated style), and the fashion industry in any city has its own timely style, and so on.
For business events that are social in nature, ask your host for specific detailed advice: suit? Tie but no suit? Jacket? Jeans? Skirt? Trousers? High heels or flat shoes? Perhaps it is wise, in the beginning, for men to carry a tie and women carry accessories to dress “up” or “down” –just in case.
3. Take some care, gently, politely, to determine precisely what is actually available and what is to be implemented at some future time. Americans are enthusiastic, optimistic and forward-thinking. This enthusiasm may sound like hype, whether it is or not. Americans like to believe their dreams are around the corner, and often project that optimism as if the results of those dreams are a current reality. They don’t mean to mislead you so much as to dazzle you and get you to share their vision and join in.
4. Separate the presenter from the message. When you see charisma, slow down. (Now, this idea applies to all cultures, not just the U.S.). Some Americans combine a fine sense of the raconteur to their enthusiasm and optimism. This can paint a compelling picture of an opportunity. No matter how much you may be charmed by the presenter, separate the presentation from the meaning (sometimes referred to as knowing the “sizzle” from the “steak”), and verify what is really available to you.
5. Document what goes on. Americans love the handshake deal – it is part of their trusting nature, the speed at which they like to see progress, and the informality of their culture. But if the dreams crash and the deal falters, or your alliance disappoints, they can become righteous and litigious.
Email has made this behavior worse, creating a non-binding paper trail and a lack of proof that an email was either received, read, or acknowledged. So, it is wise to create a binding paper trail, however informally, on what has been agreed at each step of a transaction or negotiation. In Hollywood this is called the “deal memo” and it is in common use in the U.S. under various names (summary, points, etc.). This short informal document, often an email consisting of bullets, outlines the points of agreement in simple, non-legal language. It is wise to put this dated deal memo into an attachment document with a signature line, and ask that it be signed and scanned/emailed back, or faxed back. Add also a line that states that this deal memo will be considered accepted if not amended within 10 calendar days of its date, in case it is never signed. This paper trail allows you to remind your American counterparts of what you agreed when, and show them their acknowledgement of that. You do not want to find yourself in a U.S. court of law.
6. When deciding to work together, write a “pre-nuptial” end-plan defining what happens if your alliance ends, amicably or otherwise. These sections are often missing from American agreements, or only reference the “return of materials.” When negotiating, consider who will do what if the venture or alliance ends, and if any compensation, inventory control, exclusivity or non-compete conditions should hold for some period following the decision to terminate. In the contract, this section is called “Effects of Termination.”
7. Enjoy yourself. Americans love business, and love to do business. Many find it an exercise in self-expression. Above all, join into this spirit of adventure and meet your American counterparts in one of their favorite pastimes.