Eleonore Breukel is the author of over 100 articles for various business magazines, newspapers and the virtual media.

She co-authored a book on how to do business in 19 countries across the world.

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Communicating Across Borders within Europe III

Communicating Across Borders within Europe III  - Western Europe     
Author: Eleonore Breukel  adapted 2012  -
Published: CBI* News 

Madhukar travels from Madagaskar to Hannover in Germany to meet Helmut from Foods Import. During their talk Helmut suggests to see three interesting people in the Food Import business in Berlin. Madhukar tries to schedule appointments with them for the next few days, as he is still in Europe. He is disappointed when none of the three gentlemen has time to meet him. During short telephone conversations each of them said that their agendas were fully booked for the next two weeks. Madhukar assumes that they do not want to do business with him and does not persue the contact.

Is Madhukar’s assumption that the gentlemen in Berlin do not want to meet him, correct? Or do Western Europeans perceive a full agenda as efficient planning of their workweek? It’s probably the latter. Time management is an important issue in Western European organizations as ‘time is money’.

Although most people in Western Europe can speak some English, each country has a different language. German is spoken in Germany and Austrian in Austria, which is similar to German. The small state of Luxembourg has its own language. In the north of Belgium the official language is Flemish which is similar to Dutch, the language of The Netherlands. In the south of Belgium the official language is French. In the East of Belgium a small part of the population speaks German. Usually you can tell from a letterhead or a business card in which language area the business is located.

Britain includes Great Britain comprising England, Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland. In Ireland people speak Irish which is a proper language but everyone speaks English very well.

The people of Great Britian are called British and not English. The British have brought the English language to many countries however during the years words may have gotten a different meaning. For example Ground floor in English is First floor in American English. Also the spelling of words may be different. Organisation in English is Organization in American English.

Targets to meet
Western Europeans usually are open to new business when you convince them that they will have a return on their investment on a relatively short term, generally meaning within a year. Business people working in larger organizations have yearly targets to reach. A salesman selling computers, for example, can have a sales target of half a million Euros a year. When the salesman reaches that target he receives a bonus at the end of the year. This is an internal matter of the organization so never ask about personal targets. You, however, are an interesting party if you can help him reach his target in a fairly short period of time.

This means that you have to come with strong proposals. Your supporting product documentation should give well-structured information, backed up with the necessary figures, in a quick and easy-to-read format. Western and Northern Europeans prefer well-ordered written material with figures over glossy brochures.

When you get a request for an offer, try to send your information within two days. Do this preferably via email so that information can be forwarded on to others in the organization.

Writing time
Western and Northern Europeans have to account for each hour they work in most cases so the boss can calculate their productivity. Consequently, they are very task oriented. Little time is spent on keeping relationships alive if there is no actual collaboration. Success is measured by the completion of the task or the fulfillment of a contract. If you do a good job buyers will be back for more when the demand is there. Therefore, only call when you have something relevant to talk about such as a new product or an improved logistic system.

Structure the meeting
When you have a face to face meeting, start your conversation with just a few minutes of small talk. Then propose a structure for the conversation by saying, for example, “I would like to talk to you about our bulk prices and the expansion of our airfreight capacity. This should take about 40 minutes of your time.” Agree together on the content and the time frame of conversation so the person you’re speaking with knows what to expect. Also, ask him if he wants to add something to the agenda. Summarize several times during the conversation to see if you and your counterpart have the same understanding. At the end of the conversation make matters SMART. (Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic, Time-related) Send written material before the meeting, if possible, so the person you’re speaking with can study the material if he has time. If several persons are taking part in the meeting it may be good to send your agenda by e-mail before the meeting takes place.

Professional presentations
When you make a PowerPoint presentation be sure that it is appropriate for your audience that day and do not put too much information on one slide. The content of the message is more important than colors or special effects. Be enthusiastic but not openly passionate about your services or products. This may be perceived as too emotional and therefore not rational enough. Emotions are expressed very little, therefore you may perceive people as distant and cold but this does not mean that they are not interested in your services. Children are taught not to show emotions in private and certainly not in public.

Be transparent in your communication
When you speak, be direct. Start with the heart of the matter and consequently move on to the details. If you do not agree with a proposal, say so. People expect you to speak up. Saying “no” is perfectly accepted. Western and Northern Europeans are usually not able to read the body language of people with another cultural background. You have to make yourself understood in words. If you are not direct and clear in your phrasing the person you are speaking with may get the impression that you are withholding information and therefore will not trust you.

When people talk they look each other in the eyes, including conversations between men and women. When you do not look a person in the eyes, he or she might think you are being dishonest or feel unconfident. It is common to hear, “He couldn’t look me in the eyes because he was not telling the truth.” Or “He does not look me in the eyes to show me that he is inferior to me”.

In cultures where transparency, assertiveness and equality are important values you have to speak up, be assertive and show them that you operate at the same level.

Be prepared that the Western Europeans, men and women, are hard-line negotiators and there is tough competition amongst businesses. Germans will want to take you through each little detail of your collaboration before a contract is signed. They feel uncomfortable if a work process is not completely thought through. Structure negotiations well and put them at ease with good argumentation.

Showing respect
Western Europeans are more sensitive to social status then Northern Europeans. They are also much more formal. Men and women are equal and are treated the same way in society and in business. People shake hands when they meet. Introduce yourself by your first name and your last name. Keep at least an arm’s length distance from the person you are speaking with and do not touch him or her while talking. Only call someone by their first name when you are invited to do so. In Germany you address someone with his academic title if he has one e.g. Doctor Friedrich.

Continuity and network
In Western and Northern Europe, people change jobs more frequently than in Southern
Europe. This means that when your contact, e.g. Mr. Smith, leaves his organization you may have to start lobbying all over again with the person taking his position. Or in the worst case, the new person will bring his/her own network of suppliers and your name will soon be forgotten.

Make sure that you have at least three or four contacts in each organization at different levels so your name will continue. Schedule an appointment with the new man and get acquainted. In the meantime keep in touch with your old contact Mr. Smith in his new organization as he may need your services as a new supplier.

  • Time is money. Only call when you have something relevant to say.
  • Help your client to meet his target within a relatively short period of time.
  • Structure your conversation so the person you’re talking with knows what to expect from the meeting.
  • Make things SMART before ending any conversation. SMART means Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic and Time-related.
  • Be enthusiastic about your products but do not become passionate as this will be perceived as unprofessional and not focused.
  • Do not call people by their first names unless you are invited to do so.
  • Have several contact persons in an organization to ensure continuity when your contact person changes jobs.

© Eleonore Breukel -

* CBI’s mission is to contribute to the economic development of developing countries by strengthening the competitiveness of companies from these countries on the EU market.