How to Work With International Customers and Suppliers

rsz_computerwithphone by Tim Parker on July 15, 2013

Is your company going international? Taking your usual American approach to professional interactions with foreign customers and suppliers may alienate important clients. Before you attempt to work with someone outside the United States, consider the potential differences in how you do business (and view the world).

Here’s a bit of advice for forging international partnerships:

1. Research the culture. Study up on the economics, large-scale political events, names of key leaders, your direct competitors, and cultural norms in your target partner’s country. (This U.K.-based website is a valuable resource.) Read the latest Commercial Guides at, too.

2. Understand gender roles. Understand that perceptions of women in the workplace [PDF] vary widely around the world. Whether you’re male or female, decide whether you’re willing to work with a customer or client whose personal values and organizational culture may differ greatly from yours. In some cases, women business owners may have to make adjustments to their standard practices, such as sending a male colleague to meet with a client.

3. Speak to someone with experience. Someone in your professional network loves to globe-trot — and perhaps has even done business in your target client’s country. Ask for some advice. If you don’t know anybody, contact your local chamber of commerce or industry trade group, which can likely refer you to someone who can give you insight into that foreign market.

4. Find a local contact. American expats are everywhere, and many of them are entrepreneurs. Why not find one who can give you a bicultural perspective on the place? Melinda Emerson, author of Become Your Own Boss in 12 Months, tells Wells Fargo’s Tegan Jones, “Anybody that’s going to do business in a foreign country should really consider employing individuals who are from that country who can give specialized insight and knowledge and make sure that things go smoothly.”

5. Check the time. It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget: Not everyone works in the same time zone. If you’re in New York at 4 p.m. and call your customer in Mumbai, they probably won’t be happy that you woke them up at 1:30 a.m. provides a world clock, which is available as a smartphone app.

6. Know the holidays. Calling foreign clients on one of their country’s national holidays could be offensive. It could also be a disaster for your business if you fail to plan important deadlines around when they’re out of the office. For example, if you work with a Chinese manufacturer, you should know that during Chinese New Year (late January or early February), nearly all manufacturing and shipping shuts down for at least one week and often longer. (Once again, can give you the information you need.)

7. Use Skype. International calling can be expensive, so many companies prefer to use Skype or a similar internet-based service for communications. If you don’t already have an account, get one and learn how to use it before contacting foreign clients.