'In the US, prospects assume you're being truthful. Here they're far more skeptical'

This CEO has learned a few things about business culture overseas after stints in four continents.

By Tony Corrigan CEO, Tenderscout

In Ireland it’s who you know, in the US it’s what you know, and in the UK it’s proving that you know what you say you know.

I SPENT THE first seven or so years of my working life with IBM, working on large global projects, primarily in financial sectors.

Large projects tended not to happen in Ireland back then and all my work was abroad, in South America, North America, Europe and South Africa.

The work was hugely varied, requiring me to meet with people of different cultures in different working environments, and one of my main challenges was to figure out, in that context, how business ‘worked’ so that I could do my job to the best of my ability.

Different cultures and different languages make misunderstandings common. There was a time in Brazil where I told a ‘joke’ in English, which was interpreted into Portuguese by my Japanese interpreter… and resulted in a two-hour conversation as to what exactly I meant.

During a spell in Argentina, I was intrigued that employees of a multinational telco were so in fear of losing their jobs that they basically worked constantly. And they listened to Queen a lot. An awful lot.

In Cyprus, I learned that to impress you stay away from the Nescafé and instead have ‘coffee’, although it’s best not to call it Turkish coffee.

After some time though, I realised that much of the cultural challenges are smoothed away by working for a large multinational. At scale, business is pretty similar all around the world.

Working in Ireland

However I realised that I didn’t really know much about working in Ireland. Sure I knew about working with my Irish colleagues, but nothing about how business was really done.

Fortunately, at that stage, the dotcom boom was happening around me, so I took the opportunity to start working for an internet services company, whose clients were primarily Irish SMEs.

I was much closer to the sales process then, and I didn’t have the trust that a large company gives you. I realised that, for smaller clients, business is very personal. Credibility has to be earned.

Pretty much every business introduction in Ireland begins with establishing who you know in common and using that as a basis for establishing the relationship.

Just this past week, a client from one company overheard me asking to speak to someone in another company. Turns out that she was his sister-in-law, and that helped to close the deal in under an hour.

Working in the UK was another cultural experience. While in the US prospects generally assume you’re being truthful, in the UK and Ireland they’re far more skeptical.

A US prospect will very quickly decide whether to give you a chance with their business, but will be quite unforgiving if you don’t deliver. They don’t tend to do second-chances either, so unless you really know what you’re doing and have the ability to deliver on your proposition, stay away.

A typical prospecting call to our US office ends with the client saying something like, “So you have a solution that can help me win more business? That’s just what we need, so let’s go.”

In the UK, the culture is less open. Our clients tend to trust our references rather than what we say ourselves. We typically hear, “Really, a technology that can replace the relationships I’ve spent years building up? Show me someone you’ve done that for and I’ll consider it.”

Working in the UK, we’ve found that we have to invest more time in pre-sales activity, building relationships and trust.

Winning contracts

Our business is helping companies, typically firms with between 10 and 500 employees, win contracts against much better-resourced competitors.

Winning contracts requires clients to share commercially sensitive information and in Ireland a great many companies find it very difficult to do that. In the UK or, especially, in the US, companies see that as a natural part of the process.

In Ireland, for many businesses, sales is a necessary evil, definitely not something to readily invest in. A huge mistake that we made starting when launching TenderScout was to look for clients in Ireland.

We incorrectly assumed that the openness that we had experienced through our previous positions in the US or the healthy skepticism that we found in the UK would similarly be found in Ireland.

Yet we typically heard, “Sure why would they buy from us? We don’t even know anybody in that company.” And so I’ve come to the view that the ability of Irish companies to scale or succeed beyond their own community is fundamentally constrained by their disregard for the sales process.

Being Irish can open doors abroad, particularly in the US, South America and large parts of Europe. Knowing the business culture, particularly when it comes to selling and sales, is critical in deciding which doors to knock on if you want to maximise your return on investment.

When we started gaining traction in the UK and the US, it started with reference customers or from our networks. Our experience was that you can’t rock up at your prospect’s office with your carry-on luggage and expect to get a deal.

Being Irish is of no particular advantage, in my experience, and increasingly you’re selling to people who don’t care where you’re from but rather what you can do for them. In the UK you can lean on our cultural similarities a little, but that’ll barely get you in the door. After that it’s down to your ability to sell your proposition.

Tony Corrigan is CEO of Tenderscout.

If you want to share your opinion, advice or story, email opinion@fora.ie.