Six years ago, I bought a vacation home in Panama City, Panama. Within a year of buying that home, I was fortunate enough to land a part-time position as a country manager for the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business' Global Consulting Practicum. At GCP, we partner with top-tier foreign universities in Chile, China, Colombia, Israel, Peru and Spain to assist companies who want to enter or expand their presence in the U.S. market.

Finding companies that are interested in marketing and selling products in the world's biggest market isn't that difficult. We have a strong, vibrant economy, and the world admires our business ethics. The U.S. is the easiest place on the planet to do business.

Culturally, Americans only have to meet someone once or twice to determine if their skills and personality are a fit for us. I have gotten business from U.S. clients after one meeting if there is a need and a fit.

Doing business abroad is a totally different matter. Most Americans don't have the patience, because the process I am about to describe is very arduous and time-consuming. There are two phases for obtaining business abroad.

Developing Contacts

I suggest six ways to develop contacts that can lead to potential opportunities:

1. American Chamber of Congress: Every major city in the world has an American Chamber of Commerce. The fees are usually less than $300, and the contacts are great. I belong to the American Chamber in Panama, which has more than 300 members. Members of the staff go out of their way to make introductions, and attending events is a good way to meet people.

I offer to do a one-hour seminar on marketing, raising capital or other subjects I am familiar with. American Chambers like to have foreign speakers because they are an attraction and bring a different point of view than local providers of similar services. The Chambers also offer similar benefits to U.S. Chambers in terms of listing members online and various benefit programs.

2. Rotary Club: Join the Rotary Club. The Rotary Club is typically made up of professionals and owners of small to medium-sized businesses. In foreign countries, it is the best way to develop personal relationships.

3. Social clubs: In most major cities, there are private clubs that have reciprocal agreements with local social clubs in other countries. I belong to the Union League in Philadelphia, which is more than 160 years old. Through my membership, I can use the facilities of other clubs in the U.S. and abroad. The Club Union in Panama is the place to meet the rich and powerful. Through my membership, I have made tremendous top-level contacts.

4. Teaching: If you can't become a member of a local club and have no interest in the Rotary Club, offering to teach at a local university is an excellent way to develop relationships. I have taught two-day seminars the last two years at the University of Louisville in Panama on Internet marketing and entrepreneurship. The university markets the seminars, which are usually attended by about 25 to 50 businesspeople, I'm paid a fair amount of money for the classes.

5. American embassy: Work with the American embassy. American embassies have commercial attachés who will make business introductions. They will also do mailings to regional businesses for a fee of less than $1,000.

6. Guest columnist: Offer to write a guest column for the local chamber, business newspaper, general newspaper or business-oriented Web sites. Publications are always looking for content.

Cultivating Relationships

Here are five tactics to use to develop relationships that could lead to new business.

1. Office meetings: Many foreign business executives like to have first meetings on their turf. They like to show you their offices and facilities. During the meeting, they'll want to hear about your capabilities and how you can possibly help them. If there is a need, then the game begins.

2. Meals: Once a foreign executive determines you are worth knowing, they will suggest lunch, or you can invite them out. You offer to pick up the tab, but sometimes they will insist on buying since you are a guest in their country. During this meeting, you will spend more time getting to know each other professionally.

3. Family ties: In the U.S., getting families together is nice, but not a prerequisite to developing long-term business relationships. Outside the U.S., especially in Latin America and Asia, businesspeople like to get to know you on a personal level. That means having dinner with spouses and children.

4. Gifts: I give business books as gifts, which businesspeople enjoy. Practically all business-people outside the U.S. speak at least two languages, and one of them is always English.

5. Introductions: You need to think about how you can make business introductions that will cost your target nothing, but could add value.


Now comes the hard part, sitting and waiting for something to happen. Unlike in the U.S., where one or two meetings will produce a result, foreign relationships take at least a year to harvest. Doing business abroad is all about building trust and relationships. It's sometimes exasperating, but once the ties are built, foreign companies don't like to make changes.

I had a foreign client who developed a 20-year relationship with a distributor and would not leave them for a better deal or more sales. Relationships are just as important as or more important than profits to foreign businesspeople because most businesses are privately owned. As a privately owned company, they aren't under pressure to increase sales and margins to satisfy outside investors.

I would recommend one book for doing business in other countries: Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, by Terri Morrison and Wayne Conaway. This book is an encyclopedia for how to deal with people of all cultures; it suggests organizations to join and has advice on building foreign relationships.

So, if you are doing business abroad, know that the journey is long, but once that relationship is built, the foundation is usually rock-solid forever.
Kramer is the author of five business books on topics related to venture capital, management and consulting. He is a faculty member at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and the veteran of more than 20 start-ups and four turnarounds.

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