Oh Yeah? Standardize This!

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In case you missed it last week, the European Commission announced it wants to make it easier for companies with single shareholders (meaning small and medium-sized firms) to operate throughout the EU. It would do this by standardizing lots of things so folks would not have to travel around or spend lots of money to expand their businesses to other EU countries. [Link here]

I say “hooray!” Great idea! There are lots of companies in Romania that would love to start doing business internationally. And now, thanks to the EC, they’ll soon have a little help.

But really, come to think of it, why stop there? The world is bigger than Europe. Just aligning a few things here is a good start, but why not do something that will have a REAL impact? Many of the companies I’ve met here dream of truly hitting it big. They are writing their websites in English, hungrily peering across the Atlantic, seeing their futures conquering the US.

So no, I say if these brains up in Brussels really want to be useful, they would concentrate on doing something even more important than merely unifying regulations and standardizing documents. They would give these small-business folks a list of vital dos and don’ts that goes beyond just the documents and helps standardize behavior.

Because the fact is it will do little good for businesses in Romania to try to expand westward if they continue to do business in such an un-Western way.

So let me try to help, at least from a friendly snide American perspective. Here is a handful of things you might want to keep in mind:

1) If you’re seeking to do business with an American firm (and this applies to many Western European countries as well) and you receive an email from them, do one simple thing: Respond. Yes. Actually look down and press “Reply” and then start typing. It’s simple. Really. I know you’re out of practice but give it a try. Start with “Thank you for the email.” Then say whatever you want. “Yes” is ok. “I don’t know” is just fine. “Who knows? I’ll get back to you” sounds good.  “Don’t bother me” is all right. Or you can type “Later” or “Maybe” or even “There is no way I can make that decision right now, but thanks for the email and I’ll consider it or not and if you don’t hear from me for forever, please feel free to email me in two or more decades.” In other words, write anything you want. But not responding at all (especially if you’re interested or you might be interested in two or more decades) does not make you seem important and busy. Quite the contrary, in fact. To us, not answering simply leaves the impression that you don’t work hard enough. And who wants to do business with someone who only works a half-day? (By the way, if you do write that you’ll get back to them, then I hate to break it to you, but you have to get back to them – unless you want to be considered a liar – which, believe it or not, and despite what we do, Americans don’t like so much.)

2) Speaking of what we don’t like, we don’t like – or rather, we don’t understand – when a person doesn’t say “No.” We say it so often, it sometimes even means “yes.” (“No, that’s a great idea. Let’s do it.”) We certainly say it at home. We heard it growing up. We say it to our kids. Our spouse repeats it over and over. It’s not a bad word. And it’s easy to remember. Now, we’ve heard often enough that the Chinese will avoid saying no (it has something to do with their culture, I think) so we expect it from them. But we don’t expect it from Europeans, who are almost just like us – and especially not from folks like you who grew up under those rude and cold Russians, which of course, we think all of you did. So it’s simple. Really. If you don’t want our cupcakes, just say “No, thanks, I don’t want your cupcakes.” We don’t take it personally – not even from our spouse. We won’t hate you. Again, it’s just the opposite. By your saying no, in fact, we’re sure to like you. We like to be told no. It gives us a challenge and a reason to feel superior, since of course we know that you should be saying “yes.” Most importantly, however, we appreciate the quick answer so we can direct our energy elsewhere. So think about it. Really. It’s just a small word. You can even say “Nu.” We’ll try to guess what that means – and half the time we’ll probably be right.

3) Now, let’s be more positive here and say that someone likes your business. Then it’s very possible that you might attend a meeting. Many of us Americans know that in some places, you don’t just jump right in and talk about business. We’re told it’s not polite. We’re not sure why, but that’s what we’ve heard, as if the meeting was set up for some other imaginary reason. Of course, we’re not sure what else there is to discuss, but we’ll try to follow whatever you say and nod politely and maybe not yawn. (In the US, if you start off by talking about some other topic than the business deal you’re there to discuss, we tend to get annoyed, because what difference does it make what I do when I’m not working – and besides, by asking me, you’re merely reminding me that I, in fact, do nothing but work.) So again, we don’t like it but we know it’s a custom. We’ll do our best to be nice. But I warn you, be prepared and forgive us if the 23 seconds you just spent talking about your hotel, your flight, or your kids seemed to us like an hour-and-a-half and we suddenly interrupt you as if our hair caught on fire. “Ok, whatever you just said is  great,” we’ll probably say. “Now what is it you make?”

4) Speaking of time, here’s a small one you might want to remember. In fact, do yourself a big favor and write it down.  Ready?  Ok.  No matter how busy you are – let me repeat that, NO MATTER HOW BUSY YOU ARE – never tell an American businessperson you can’t spare 30 minutes in the next week or so. Tell them anything you want (your heart surgery is scheduled that day, your house just burned down, you need to give birth) but never ever say it’s because you’re too busy. No one’s that busy. At least that’s what we think. We’re sure there is no way on earth you’re as busy as us. (That wouldn’t be possible. We work all the time.) And we can always find time. We can always do more. In fact, that’s the basis of our self-worth – all of it! – our ability to always and forever take on more and more work, working 20 hours on weekends (to catch up on emails), getting very little sleep, forgetting the names of our family (I think I had one) and never taking vacations. (This, of course, helps explain why we have such an impressive success rate of marriage in the US where 50 percent of them actually survive – though unfortunately, the other 50 percent is comprised of former spouses.) So what’s my point? It’s this: If you are planning an event that occurs in two months and someone asks you for a meeting, don’t use that as the reason you can’t meet next week. Or if you are working on a project that will take another month, no matter how impossible it will be for you to finish on time, don’t tell us that’s why you’re too busy for a quick cup of coffee. Because contrary to what you might think, those types of excuses do not make you sound busy and oh-so-important. Instead, incompetent is the word that we might think of first.

5) And finally, in a sort of tortured combination of several of the above, let’s assume you actually meet an American who does business in the US. They might give you a business card and you will give them a visitor’s card, and at the end of the meeting, you are likely to say: “Sure, give me a call.” If this person is interested, eventually they are likely to give you a call (especially since you haven’t returned their emails). If this happens, then let me say this very loudly: ANSWER YOUR PHONE! No, you don’t have their number in your contacts. But how would they know that? So why wouldn’t you answer? After all, they’re doing what you told them to do. In other words, that is, they’re giving you a call. It’s not their fault you don’t have a secretary. And don’t expect them to hang up to send you an sms after you don’t answer your phone. They don’t know it’s the rule to explain to you in writing that the unknown phone number that is calling you is them after they explained to you in writing in an email you didn’t answer. They’ll just think you’re too lazy to pick up your phone. And that’s the worst thing we can think. We’ll never do business. Because let me assure you, the only reason we don’t answer our phone is that maybe we’re in a meeting, perhaps we’re in the shower, or we’re probably dead. And any one of the three is why, we know, god made certain that voice mail was invented. (Oh yeah, that’s right. By the way, you might want to get that turned on.)

Good luck with your expansion.

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