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Parlez-vous business?

Published on 23/10/03 at 06:21pm

There is no doubt about it - the world really is getting smaller. Multinational companies continue to expand and it is not uncommon to find that even small independent companies are just as likely to have clients in Paris, Berlin and Tokyo, as Manchester, Cardiff and Dublin.

The world seen from a Celtic point of view

Although I shall strive to treat this topic in as objective a manner as possible, it is necessary for me to tell you a little about myself since my views about other countries are inevitably based on personal experiences.

I am a Celt (a Scot to be precise). When people think of the Celts they thinks of the Scots, Irish, Welsh, Bretons, etc, people right at the Western edge of Europe. However, what many people do not realise is that we did not start out there. In fact, we were the first Europeans - a cultured, peaceful people who inhabited central Europe thousands of years ago. We were driven further and further west by barbarians invading from the east until we ended up where we are today.

As far as the Scots are concerned, someone once said, 'Of all the small nations, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.' Not bad, eh? And these were the words of no less a person that Winston Churchill. So, what I am trying to say is that when you work with a Scot like me, you are working with someone who never feels inferior or thinks he always has to try to prove something.

As far as my personal qualifications are concerned, I worked for a number of years in the Swiss and Italian pharma industries, I wrote the Financial Times Management Report on 'The Japanese Pharmaceutical Industry' (1997), I have taught at universities in the UK and Iran and was a WHO consultant to the Iranian Ministry of Health for a short period in the 1970s. I speak French, German and Italian and have given lectures to university students in French and German.

Europe, the US and Japan are the major players as far as the pharma industry is concerned. Although I have experience in pharma R&D, for the last 14 years I have been involved in media and communications. However, what I have to say applies to almost any part of the industry.

How Europeans see each other

Let us begin by looking at a number of countries that have in the past not been the best of friends. Some traditional enemies include:

  • Germany and Switzerland
  • France and Belgium
  • England and Scotland
  • Sweden and Norway
  • Spain and Portugal

These are historically 'big country/small country' situations and although some people will try to tell you that enmities no longer exist, my experience has been that they are often just under the surface, ready to show themselves in stressful circumstances. A simple appreciation that they do, in fact, exist is often enough to avoid some tricky situations. As well as the pairs listed above there are other larger geographical differences that need to be addressed. For example, in the spring of 2001, The Economist ran an article on the Italian President with a photograph of him on its cover with the words: 'Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy'. This caused huge offence in Italy.

I worked in Italy for a number of years and one thing I learnt about business there (and which also applies to Spain and Greece) is that it is not helpful to apply Northern European morality to Southern European countries. This does not mean that corruption goes unnoticed or unacknowledged, it simply means that if you wish to do business in such countries, it helps to understand that things are done differently there. If you find that unacceptable then perhaps you should look elsewhere for clients.

Conducting focus groups in Europe is also a good way to discover differences between nationalities. Focus groups are run according to a well-planned protocol in order to cover a series of topics in as structured a way as possible. A typical group will take about two hours and involve a panel of about 10 carefully selected people. From my own experiences, the English, Dutch and French are fairly similar and are happy to be led through the protocol, offering their opinions when asked. The problems usually arise with the Italians and Germans. It is very difficult to conduct a structured focus group with Italians because they refuse to accept the concept of going round a table in turn, each person giving their opinion. As soon as something remotely controversial is said, the entire group will join in and heated mini-discussions will develop around the table.

As far as the Germans are concerned, they are much more orderly. The problem here is that often the groups will include an academic, perhaps some distinguished professor from a local university. I have found from experience that German professors do not like the focus group format where they have to give their opinion in a few crisp sentences. No, they prefer to deliver a mini-lecture on each topic during which they receive the respectful attention of the rest of the group. This can be very trying for the moderator who cannot risk upsetting the professor yet has to get through the protocol in the time allotted. This is especially taxing if the client is sitting behind a one-way mirror observing the proceedings.

How Americans and Europeans see each other

My personal experience of this has largely been gleaned from moderating focus groups for major American companies involved in pharmaceuticals and medical devices. I have interviewed researchers and healthcare workers in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

Having been involved in the planning of a number of major surveys, I have found that Americans often do not appreciate just how varied Europe is. I have told them on many occasions that just because a focus group protocol runs well in, say, Houston, this is no guarantee that it will run well in London, Frankfurt or Milan. Very often this information has been received with disbelief. Often you are seen as being obstructive or nit-picking. However, to be fair, on occasions when I have been shown to be correct, the clients have often been fulsome in their acknowledgment of my predictions.

Looking at things the other way, many Europeans often envy Americans for their bigger budgets, higher salaries and greater power. On occasion, this can lead to petty criticisms and carping (usually behind the backs of the American clients) and this is rather pathetic. Personally, I have always admired Americans desire to get things done and their generally positive attitude, 'No problem!', is something I hear often in the US, but very rarely in the UK.

The Japanese  cigareets and whusky but no wild, wild women

There is an old American song that begins: 'Cigareets and whusky and wild, wild women, they'll drive you crazy, they'll drive you insane.' Well Japan is not (quite) like that. I first visited Japan about 20 years ago and have worked closely with the Japanese for almost 12 years now. This has been a very positive experience, for I like them and have admired their culture - especially their art - for many years.

However, especially where international conferences are involved, meetings will often be held in smoke-filled rooms accompanied by lots of alcohol. That takes care of the cigareets and whusky. But you will be disappointed if you are looking for wild, wild women. Japan is still a male-dominated society and usually the women you meet are personal assistants. However, these are likely to be extremely talented with all the information you could possibly need at their fingertips.

A key factor in dealing with the Japanese is to demonstrate commitment. The Japanese business world thinks long-term and is not generally interested in short-term solutions or relationships. The simplest way to demonstrate long-term commitment is to have you business cards printed in Japanese. This is not very expensive and much easier to do than it used to be. You can also have your key promotional literature printed in Japanese.

If you are going to Japan or meeting a group of Japanese for the first time do your homework. When I am delivering a lecture about globalisation I like to ask the audience if they can name the current prime minister of Japan. If I am lucky a couple of people will know. I then ask the rest of the audience if they can name any prime minister of Japan in the last 20 years. This request is usually met with silence. Think about it. How would you feel if you met a Japanese businessman and he did not know the name of the prime minister of your country? So, my advice is this: if you are going to Japan buy a couple of issues of The Nikkei Weekly or, even better, take out a six-month subscription. This is an excellent and inexpensive way of finding out what is happening in Japan. It contains sections on the latest inventions and products, matters of political concern and everyday life.

What about the language? Well, it is not a bad idea to learn to say, 'How are you?' and perhaps a few other useful phrases to help when you are out eating and drinking with your hosts. Somewhat paradoxically, a number of Japanese become uncomfortable if your Japanese is too good. They feel that you are invading their territory. However, for the vast majority of us, this is unlikely to be a problem!

Perhaps I can end by telling a story that highlights one difference between Germany and Japan. A few years ago I was translating some press material for a German client relating to one of their key drugs. I told them that if they ever hosted a conference on it I would be happy to cover it and get them some publicity. All went quiet for several months then they sent me some more press releases on a conference that had just been held in one of my favourite locations. They had not bothered to invite me.

OK, I thought, I shall show these guys what I can do. One of their key products had a big anniversary coming up so I got on the phone to my contacts and wrote a key piece on it for an internationally celebrated medical journal and another for one of the world's leading business magazine. I even managed to ensure that both pieces were published on the same day. I sent the company copies of the pieces with a message that basically said, 'Look what I can do for you guys without payment - imagine if you used me as a consultant.' I am still waiting for a reply! If this had been a Japanese company, I would have been flown to Japan, treated like a king and received a large wad of cash.

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