International Negotiations: Cross-cultural success


In Germany, you absolutely must be over-punctual, in France, you definitely cannot talk business over a meal, and in England, you can offend your English counterparts by making demands that are too clearly formulated – these are all familiar clichés. But is there really anything behind these stereotypes when it comes to international negotiations? 

Negotiations with people from other nations are part of everyday life in most procurement departments. Intercultural competence is especially important. Some of our expats report on their personal experience negotiating in their chosen home country.

Leave room for informal discussions and compromises

There is no uniform negotiation style in China. Instead, the industry, region, company size and international experience of the contact persons shape the way they deal with foreign procurement teams. However, there are a few basics: In my experience, the Chinese are open and direct in negotiations and know what they want. They are usually very entrepreneurial, want to
build good businesses and long-term relationships, and are willing to go the extra mile to do so. This makes them pleasant negotiating partners. Anyone negotiating in China should expect several rounds of negotiations, preferably face to face. A strict “no” is rare. However, if a question is avoided or not answered, it most likely means just that. In this case, do not press for an answer. At all costs, Europeans should avoid escalation. The issue of losing face is no longer as serious as it is often made out to be, but it is still culturally embedded. Showing respect is very important, even if you disagree.
Often, deals are only concluded after the official meeting, for example through a personal telephone conversation and a compromise between the parties. China trips should therefore be planned with some time between appointments to allow room for informal discussions. Negotiations with international stakeholders are different from negotiations between Chinese compatriots. However, if possible, expats should also seal a successful conclusion over dinner with a good rice liquor “baijiu”.

Christopher Gaede is a Project Manager at INVERTO in Cologne. As part of an extensive automotive project, he was in Shenyang for an extended period of time, where he worked with our Chinese project team and the client on site.

Detailed in all circumstances

Although I come from the Romanian city of Timisoara, which was part of the Habsburg Empire and is also called Little Vienna in my home country, I was surprised by the cultural peculiarities I discovered when I moved to Vienna. One difference I noticed very early on was the attitude toward preparing for a task - whether it was a professional or personal activity. I was surprised when I realized
that before professional negotiations – and in exactly the same way, for example, for private hikes - it is not enough to define the goal and the way to get there, but also each individual step. In Austria, after a careful analysis of various alternatives, the chosen path is described in detail and milestones or breaks are also planned. In Romania, on the other hand, the attitude is more flexible. Once the goal has been set, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the atmosphere, and building good relationships with the negotiating partners is a priority. If you want to negotiate in Austria, you have to be prepared for a very structured approach, without neglecting the relationship-building aspect. The process can often be lengthy, and those involved must be patient. However, going through a very structured negotiation process is only one prerequisite, and the final result ultimately depends on the trust gained along the way.

Iulia Pop has been a Consultant in our Vienna office since January 2022. She studied in Vienna and Milan, speaks five languages and also completed an internship in Munich before choosing Vienna as her adopted home.

Five countries, five languages, five cultures

Scandinavia is often seen as a single entity from the outside. Many thereby often have images in their heads of very friendly blond people, genuine equality and a relaxed basic attitude. In fact, these are unifying elements that I have encountered in all Scandinavian countries. However, there are also clear differences between the nationalities, for example between Denmark and
Sweden. This is particularly noticeable in negotiations: Danes usually express their demands and opinions quite directly and bluntly. In Sweden, on the other hand, the opposite is true. It is important to make small talk at the beginning of every meeting. Demands should not be made too directly; Swedish interlocutors are more likely to be offended by this. Confrontation is considered impolite; consensus in the group is important when making decisions.Both ways of interacting have advantages and disadvantages. Foreign negotiation teams should be aware of the differences and take them into account in their strategies if they want to be successful.

Marcus Schwarz is Managing Director of INVERTO in Denmark. Born in Cologne, he opened the Copenhagen office in January 2018, thus launching our activities in Scandinavia.

Focus on deepening bonds

Before even sitting down at a negotiation table, the French are used to building strong relationships with their suppliers. It is commonplace to hold non-related work lunches and engage in small talk to establish trust between all parties. Despite this quirk, French negotiations tend to be more formal than in other countries that I have worked in. Particularly during the early stages of the negotiation
process, French stakeholders always address their counterparts using the formal version of the language as a sign of politeness and respect. Being prepared is vital. French suppliers particularly appreciate when clients base their requests on sound data analysis. The French legal framework also strongly influences what can and cannot be negotiated with suppliers. Any economic dependencies from your suppliers need to be jointly assessed, with no immediate opportunity for contract termination. Overseas negotiators need to be prepared to be patient. They should expect any negotiation running during the summer, to be delayed in one way or another due to the fixed vacation season. Businesses should therefore plan ahead to avoid any urgent requests during this period.

Juan Felipe González is a Project Manager in our Paris office. Born in Colombia, Juan completed his studies in France and the US before beginning his career in New York and London. He returned to France to join INVERTO in Paris.

Solving the verbal riddles

Personal connections are essential to get in touch with new negotiation partners. In the UK, being introduced through a trusted third party will help in establishing a reliable relationship. For this reason, some organizations are even willing to pay for the right personal introductions. Communication with British stakeholders can prove tricky for expats. It is important to be clear but not too
direct. Clearly stating what you are asking for at a particular stage of the negotiation is sensible, but it is unwise to become too harsh or overly direct during discussions. Negotiators who resort to aggressive tactics will suffer a loss of face. When rejecting an offer, rather than an outright no, negotiators should consider offering an alternative solution or viewpoint or at the very least, politely decline. British people often like to speak in riddles, including lots of cultural or ironic references when communicating and do not always appreciate that their “British” English can be hard to understand for that reason. When negotiating, ask counterparts to be clear about what they mean as they will generally be happy to adjust to a more straightforward communication style when asked. UK stakeholders tend to be happy to have robust negotiations but do not respond well to surprises deemed as being designed to trap either side or generally trick them somehow. There is an expectation on each side to remain fair and truthful in negotiations at all times.

Lina Tilley is a Principal in our London office. Born in Germany, she completed her studies at the Alliance Manchester Business School and has since made the UK her home.


Be straightforward (but not too much)

In my experience, face to face meetings still play a key role in relationship building in Germany. Kick-starting a relationship with a meeting to discuss business performance and aspirations to evaluate the ‘business fit’ is an important first step for any negotiation. These sessions are quite formal with emphasis on job titles, hiearchy and business turnover projections. Taking
the time to go and visit the client site is seen as a great honor and the ‘red carpet’ is rolled out showing the seriousness of the relationship you are looking to build. Negotiation and general conversation in Germany tend to be very pointed. Getting to the crux of the matter and what you want as quickly as possible supports the speed of execution and builds mutual respect. Contrary to popular belief, there are still borderlines to be respected, and you should not be too direct and offensive.Details really do matter in German negotiations. While in other countries, a full contract will fix all the relevant detail, I recall one conversation with German counterparts having to go to 5 decimal places on a unit price. Despite the direct style of communication, overseas negotiators should be ready to enjoy the ride during negotiations in Germany. They can often be quite elongated processes, with many escalation points, particularly when negotiating with traditional businesses and their large hierarchies. Many days can pass with total silence and ‘annoyed’ counterparts, but if it is meant to be, the deal will always be completed. However, once an agreement is made, the company generally just get on with and do their upmost to execute the agreed business to the best of their ability. True to form Germans are very reliable, deliver on time and they will always let you know very directly if there is a problem and aim to find the most seamless solution.

Theo Mizzi is a Project Manager in our London office. Since graduating in 2015, he has experience working in procurement in the food industry in Germany and the UK.

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