Never scribble notes on a Japanese man's or woman's business card. That alone could be enough to kill a deal.
Japanese people regard business cards as an extension of themselves, and to write on a new business contact's card would insult them greatly, Chris Snowberger told a local audience at the Steamboat Springs Airport Friday. Snowberger is the deputy director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development. She organized Gov. Bill Owens' trade mission to Japan last year.
The Japanese obsession with business card etiquette doesn't stop there. Snowberger said the exchange of business cards entail a very formal ritual that involves presenting the card face forward and right-side up and bowing. When Owens' trade delegation visited large Japanese corporations, the ceremony could become drawn out.
"It would take 20 minutes for all of us to exchange business cards," Snowberger recalled with a laugh.
Snowberger was in Steamboat Springs to inform local business people of the services her office provides for companies hoping to do business overseas. The Office of Economic Development is statutorily bound to work only with companies exporting goods and services and cannot offer assistance to importers. That's because the legislature determined that exporting companies generate more jobs for Colorado, Snowberger said.
The need to understand foreign cultures and the etiquette surrounding business cards notwithstanding, doing business overseas doesn't have to be the impenetrable jungle some people think it is.
"It's not as intimidating as it sounds," Snowberger said. "There are people who can help get your product on the international market."
In Colorado, Snowberger said, 65 percent of the companies doing business abroad have fewer than 20 employees. Companies that export products pay wages that average 11 percent to 16 percent higher than companies who do not, Snowberger said, and the number of jobs at those companies grow 15 percent to 40 percent faster.
"We think companies that export are good for communities," Snowberger said.
Her office has a staff of seven, with international trade experts assigned to each of five geographic areas of the world. They are willing to meet with the owners and executives of small companies to assess their international marketing plans and help them decide if they are really ready to export their goods and services to world markets.
The Office of Economic Development can provide introductions and smooth the way in foreign countries, but it's more proactive than that, Snowberger said. Each year, it hosts a booth at large trade shows in foreign companies, allowing Colorado companies to set up their own display within the larger booth at a nominal fee. In other cases, they invite specific companies to join them on trips abroad, where they arrange appointments for them with potential customers.
Colorado's strongest trading partner abroad is easily Canada, Snowberger said, but the emerging economies of Latin America are growing the fastest.
If a company has a Web page, and hopes to tap into international markets, she strongly suggests offering the option of viewing the Web site in the Spanish language.
Another must when getting serious about doing business abroad, Snowberger said, is having an attorney who is well-versed in international tariffs.
Companies wanting to research the availability of other products in foreign countries can do so easily through Snowberger's office; they update their international trade database every month.
If someone is contemplating selling purses made out of American bison hides abroad, for example, the Office of Economic Development can provide a full market report on leather goods in Japan.
Cultural differences among countries can derail some of the best run companies, Snowberger said. She tells a story about a lawn irrigation company that was all set to export its sprinkler heads to Europe until it learned that hoses and nozzles there have a different thread count than similar equipment in North America. That fact made it impossible to use the company's products in France. Another company was intent on selling small diesel engines to run water pumps for irrigating fields in Africa until it learned the local economy couldn't supporting burning diesel fuel for irrigation.
In Europe, products meant for retail sales are more readily accepted if their physical dimensions are small. That's because more Europeans than Americans rely on bicycles for transportation; large bulky packages are simply harder to get home from the store.
To learn more about the assistance offered through the Governor's Office of Economic Development, call (303) 892-3840.