Phone interactions with American business partners, if not properly prepared and conducted, sometimes result in huge misunderstandings, projects’ delays, resentment across teams, or even failure to secure contracts.
We surveyed our Sherpas, asking them about the expected “code of conduct” from their clients and counterparts, and we added our own insights, based on our experience working with non-US companies and attending calls between such companies and American people.
1 – Do not call without notice
Unless there is an emergency, American people usually do not appreciate getting unexpected calls. Since they usually have a tight schedule, they prefer to book time slots ahead of time (even for a 15-min call) so that they can entirely focus on the call at the time it takes place.
2 – Send a structured call agenda ahead of time
You need to communicate clearly about what will be discussed during the call. A typical agenda will include: the main topic and the problem to be solved (1 sentence), a bulleted list of key points and questions (3 to 5 bullets max.), and the people who should be attending the call.
3 – Befriend small talk
Having an ice-breaker ready when you interact with a person for the first time is best practice. When you already know a little bit about your interlocutor, keep in mind that American people do love sharing some pieces of their personal life and appreciate that you care. For instance, it is more than welcome when a CEO asks about a business partner’ or employee’s family: how was Christmas / your vacation / etc.? Did you have a good time? How were your son’s first months at college? Etc.
4 – Watch the clock
A typical call will last 15 min. (for simple questions or regular touchpoints) to 1 hour (for solving problems or making decisions). Don’t be surprised if a call ends up a bit abruptly if it exceeds the time slot initially allocated to that call. It is not disrespect, on the contrary: your interlocutor must be on time for other calls or meetings scheduled that day and he or she values your time as well.
5 – Send a message if you cannot make it
If you know that you will be late (even 10 min.) or if you need to cancel the call, you must send a message to your interlocutor ahead of time. A lot of American people use their time as if it was money in the bank: they may not wait 10 minutes for you to show up (in that case, they will move to another task and won’t take the call when it comes in), and they will most likely be resentful if you do not show up at all without notice.
6 – Show a collaborative mindset
During any interaction, you should communicate your thought-process and have your interlocutor collaborate with you to find solutions that will benefit you both. Don’t push decisions unilaterally, and don’t treat your business partners as mere providers of goods or services. The latter will easily switch to another partner or find other clients.
7 – Be business ready
If it’s a first call, make sure you have your 30-sec. elevator pitch ready so that your interlocutor does not have to figure out whom he or she is speaking with amidst such a busy day; in general, make sure that you have all documents you need to discuss in front of you (you may have to share your screen), as well as all business numbers, ratios, and KPIs pertaining to your company; if you are not a decision-maker but rather a communicator or a facilitator, make sure that you obtain a list of decision options from your managers. You may encounter little patience from your interlocutors: they will find any reason to end up the call if they feel that you are not 100% prepared.
8 – Don’t dwell on details, unless asked
Of course, if you have scheduled a field working sessions or you are trying to solve technical issues with your interlocutor, details will matter. Otherwise, you should focus on the big picture, decisions, and main workstreams. It is expected that each people will carry their duties on and figure things out down the road. Dwelling on details may be negatively perceived as inefficiency, lack of confidence, and / or micro-management.
9 – Don’t overthink
Depending on the country you are coming from, you may get offended by some US behaviors. Remember that the US culture is a low-context culture (see U.S. Culture Fundamentals): employees ranking low on the hierarchy ladder may be prompted to lead the call, managers may be “skyping” from home, sipping a giant mug of iced tea, CEOs may leave the call early on because of some other priorities, etc.
10 – Don’t apologize, don’t blame, and stay (overly?) positive
Apologies are reserved for situations when, while having full control over events and the environment, you have made an obvious mistake. Some cultures somehow value humility (have you already heard “I’m sorry” ten times during a conversation?), and some people tend to mistake their own high standards with their interlocutor’s expectations, but these are considerations you should get rid of as you interact with American people. Also, some cultures easily blame their interlocutor in front of everyone and with some disproportionate speech or tone, while American people avoid negative sentences and focus on the agenda, next steps and future, positive outcomes.
11 – Sum up and follow up
At the end of the call, summarize decisions, list next steps, and assign both deadlines or future meeting dates as well as each people’s tasks. It is best practice to send a follow-up email with these items listed as well as electronic calendar invites, and, when possible, to CC the decision-makers if they were not included in the call. American people tend to see their days through a list of tasks to complete: make it easy for them to build this list, otherwise you may end up being de-prioritized.
Disclaimer: The materials provided in this US Toolbox are for general information purposes only and are not intended to constitute comprehensive or specific legal, accounting, tax, marketing, or other advice. These materials may not reflect recent developments in the law, may not be complete, and may not pertain to your specific situation and circumstances.TradeSherpa, Inc. assumes no responsibility for errors or omissions in the materials, or for any losses that may arise from reliance upon the information contained these materials. Because these materials are intended to provide only general advice, specific advice should be taken from qualified professionals when dealing with specific situations and circumstances.