There are traditional obstacles when negotiating cross-culturally with a global supply base. There may be miscommunication because of language barriers, frustrations with time zones, cultural misunderstandings around religious and secular holidays and differing levels of service urgency.
The good news is many of the barriers are quickly broken down through daily business activities in the global supply chain, where professionals work across cultures to keep goods and services flowing. But at times it can be a rocky road.
My colleague Dan and I worked in procurement for a company that produced capital equipment for the semiconductor industry. Our company operated as part of a global supply chain, where the Japanese were both customers and suppliers. Some time ago, Japan was looked upon as a threat to the U.S. economy as the nation captured market share in such diverse industries as automobiles, consumer goods and high-tech equipment. During this time, there was significant anti-Japanese rhetoric bandied about in American industry.
One day, Dan was working through a quality issue with a local metal forming supplier and asked the shop owner and foreman to quickly come to our plant to resolve a recurring quality problem. While the owner was a frequent visitor, the foreman typically didn’t leave the shop.
Just as a half-dozen Japanese customers were making their way through the procurement department during a plant tour, the machine shop foreman took off his winter jacket, unveiling a T-shirt with a map of Japan on the back. The two WWII nuclear strike sites were identified on the map and the printing on the shirt said, "two were not enough," a crass comment meant to mitigate Japan’s economic threat. Luckily Dan had a lab coat nearby and threw it over the foreman’s shoulders just as the customers walked by.
Crisis averted ... but crisis identified.
Many of the barriers are quickly broken down through daily business activities in the global supply chain, where professionals work across cultures to keep goods and services flowing.
While my employer had a global customer base and a global supply chain, there were many employees deemed culturally unaware. The company realized employee training was necessary to mitigate future cultural gaffes, and many of us were soon becoming more aware of how to interact with people from Asia, Great Britain, Europe and more. We learned negotiation techniques, communication methods and how not to inadvertently insult our business partners, customers and suppliers alike.
The training actually improved my negotiating process by learning about key interpersonal cultural differences that I was not fully aware of. I learned a number of techniques that allowed me to focus on the job at hand, improving supplier performance, rather than on the cultural differences I was trying to navigate. I became a lot more comfortable in dealing with other cultures, and it improved my performance.
I learned how to present my business card to Japanese suppliers the right way. Use two hands when presenting the card and make sure the printing faces the person receiving the card. Wait patiently as the supplier reads the card, understanding that the longer they take the more respect is given. I learned how to accept a card from a Japanese supplier as well, taking the time to treat the card with respect. In fact, I present all of my business cards the same way now no matter the recipient, rather than just tossing them indiscriminately across a conference table.
I learned to listen more closely to suppliers, especially those with unfamiliar accents. I realized that my accent was challenging to them as well. I learned to speak a bit slower, avoid jargon and figures of speech, and focus on the content of the conversation. There are a lot of common words and phrases in supply chain management and those often worked to bridge the gaps in communication. I learned that if there was a translator in the meeting, that I was to focus on my supplier and not on the translator. The translator was an aid and not part of the conversation.
No longer do we have separate techniques to negotiate in a multicultural environment. We work, and live, in one.
I learned that it was permissible to accept gifts from some suppliers. Many Japanese suppliers would bring a small gift, something usually art based and quite unique, always in a beautifully wrapped package. The gift was a sign of respect by the bearer, and the recipient was expected to open it front of them, unwrapping it slowly and carefully, which we learned was also a sign of respect. While our ethics training precluded accepting any gifts, policies were amended to acknowledge the importance of accepting gifts with cultural significance.
I learned a lot from my suppliers as well. Many international suppliers posted sales and engineering employees in the United States for two or three years. Our regular conversations were quite interesting. They would often ask about certain unique American cultural characteristics and speak about those in their own countries. I also learned about many interesting people from interesting places and proudly shared some special baked treats, especially during holiday season. And I learned no matter the culture, at the end of the day everyone just wanted to go home to family and friends.
Our increasingly global supply chain is helping to break down cultural barriers. And as those relationships deepen, cultural understanding does as well. You get to know people really well when you work with them. No longer do we have separate techniques to negotiate in a multicultural environment. We work, and live, in one.
This story was first published in our weekly newsletter, Supply Chain Dive: Procurement. Sign up here.