Plan carefully when you're working abroad

So you'd like to take your consulting expertise on the road? Columnist Alan Weiss offers advice on doing business across the globe.

I recently returned from a trip to Australia, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Japan. In 1997, I worked in Spain and the year before in Italy. In February, I’m due in England, France, Luxembourg, and Germany. There is a great deal of business around the world for U.S.-based consultants, whether through domestic-based companies with international offices or organizations based overseas.

If you are new to the global consulting game, here are my tips for conducting business abroad:
  • Arrange to be paid in U.S. dollars drawn on U.S. banks, preferably payable in advance. While I was in Thailand, for example, the currency (baht) plunged to a historic low against the dollar.
  • Minimize your stress level by using limos and personal drivers. Traffic can be dreadful, taxi drivers may not speak fluent English, and even personal safety can be a concern (especially in places such as Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). In my experience, rates for private cars are usually very reasonable, and clients will often provide them if asked.
  • Do not rely on audio/visual support. Not only does availability of equipment vary, but the quality isn’t always what you need. Conference rooms are not always similar to U.S. norms. Plan to do without them as a contingency, if you must.
  • Learn enough of the local language to introduce yourself, find the rest room, order a meal or drink, and make your hosts comfortable. Almost all executives and most managers speak passable English. If you speak slowly, there shouldn’t be a problem.
  • Have reports duplicated locally. It’s often tough to get things through customs, and paper size, electricity, and formats can differ from what you’re accustomed to. Let your local contacts take care of the logistics.
  • Don’t expect or demand immediate response to material provided, unless you’ve arranged for prior dissemination. In many cultures, people like to contemplate information before rendering an opinion. This is not a language or comprehension problem (although some short-sighted Americans think it is).
  • Don’t make associates uncomfortable by asking for feedback that may be critical of their superiors. Keep discourse positive. In many cultures, it’s considered impolite to respond in a manner that could be construed as critical of others.
  • Don’t assume that a “yes” means agreement. You’ll often be told “yes” out of courtesy, even though that’s not what the speaker really means. (The Japanese word “hai,” which is used repeatedly, actually means “I’ve heard you,” and not “yes.”)
  • Let your U.S. clients know that you are comfortable working overseas and would be prepared to extend your projects to their remote locations.
  • Remember to contact local management associations (such as the Singapore Institute of Management). These groups often welcome guest speakers from the United States who are already in the country on someone else’s dollar. You never know; you may end up with an audience of potential clients.
  • Finally, have fun. Travel is one of the primary benefits of this profession, and the intellectual breadth derived from travel is to be relished.

Alan Weiss is the founder and president of Summit Consulting Group, Inc., a firm specializing in management and organization development. Summit's clients include Hewlett-Packard, General Electric, The New York Times, Mercedes-Benz, Coldwell Banker and more than 80 other organizations in four countries. He advises executives and consultants on business objectives and personal goals. He has also written 13 books, including the best-selling Million Dollar Consulting: The Professional’s Guide to Growing a Practice. Subscribe to his newsletter “Balancing Act: Blending Life, Work, and Relationships” by sending an e-mail to:

Copyright 2001, Alan Weiss.

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