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As international travellers quickly learn, the dos and don’ts of conducting business abroad vary considerably between countries, and even though the United States can feel more familiar to Australians than the likes of China or Japan, America retains its own boardroom behaviours.
Above all else, time is money in the USA, so make your pitches concise and have figures and statistics prepared to support your position, but don’t think you’re obligated to accept somebody’s first offer just to move things along: this is one time where Americans will be patient.
You’ll also find that Americans prefer direct and straightforward communication during meetings – ‘yes’ means ‘yes’ and ‘no’ means ‘no’ – but in casual settings, the conversation can be more friendly.
Greetings, introductions and first impressions
Get off to a good start by addressing people using their title and surname. Us ‘Ms’ for women until otherwise directed, but expect first names to quickly replace the formalities.
Don’t, however, expect a handshake – a simple “How are you doing?” is common – but where a hand is extended, shake it firmly but briefly while maintaining eye contact. When meeting a line or table of people, always look at the person whose hand you’re shaking.
Speaking of greetings, if you’re asked the above or something similar, it’s not an invitation to harp on about your long flight or family troubles. Remember, time is money here. Your response will be “good thanks”, or “very well, thank you for asking” for a more formal touch.
You’ll also want to dress for success on the first encounter – that means full business attire as you’d know it in Australia with a jacket and tie for gents and corporate wardrobe for ladies – but on future meetings, feel free to dress down to match your clients or suppliers.
That rule doesn't apply when meeting with major IT companies known for being laidback such as Google and Facebook, in which case a sport coat over a nice shirt should prove more than adequate.
Schedules and business cards
Never show up at somebody’s office unannounced: always plan your appointments in advance, avoid rescheduling them unless absolutely necessary and aim to arrive at least five minutes early.
Being any more than five minutes late requires a phone call to explain and apologise for your tardiness, but at more relaxed and private dinners, aim to arrive between five and 15 minutes after the time you were advised.
Also be mindful that phrases like “let’s do lunch” and “see you soon” are usually just parting expressions and not invitations, so if you’d like to see that person again or catch up for a meal, the onus is on you to make that happen.
When you do go out for a meal, it's customary to tip your waiter. As a guide, tip 15% of the total food and beverage bill (excluding tax) for acceptable service, 18% for good service and 20% for great service.
A smart business traveller would do well to realise that your meal guests may have children paying their way through university by waiting tables, and that appearing generous in this respect, rather than 'cheap', goes a long way to creating a great impression.
Swapping business cards is done informally – some might prefer during their first introduction, others quite casually during a meeting (“Do you have a card? I’ll send you those details today”) or when a person leaves the room, so just go with the flow.
Business meetings: quick, direct
After a brief ‘hello’, business meetings in the States tend to be shorter, to-the-point and may begin as soon as you sit down, so leave pleasantries and chit-chat at the door unless others bring it into the conversation.
You’ll want to communicate your own ideas clearly, listen intently and speak up if something is unclear – not only does the latter engage you in the conversation but it also avoids people from moving on, presuming that you’re up to speed.
Just avoid interrupting when somebody else is talking. Wait for a break in their speech, and if you pause during your own pitch, expect somebody to finish the sentence for you to keep the ball rolling.
With sport a favourite pastime in the US, other phrases like “hit a home run” and “bring it home” are also common in business talk, while “dropped the ball” is a softer way of acknowledging a mistake on your part or discussing somebody else’s.
Negotiations and business gifts
Sellers of a product or service are expected to start high while buyers will begin quite low, both with initially unappealing trading terms, giving room for each party to make concessions – so don’t make your first offer your best deal or you’ll lose your margins very quickly.
If you also feel a gift is appropriate, stick to something inexpensive but Australian, such as a nice wine (after sneakily calling somebody’s assistant to confirm whether they drink), or some chocolate to be safe, but don’t use or present a gift in a way that could appear as bribery.
Also recognise that most US government employees and many workers in the private sector are prohibited from accepting business gifts – as the working relationship is typically seen as between companies rather than their employees – in which case a hand-written note is a fine workaround.
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