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Risks of Phone and Email Communication

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The internet and technology have made the world smaller. Communication is immediate and affordable. However, email correspondence with an unknown person or an entity does not always tell the tale, and it often leads to quirks and even major misunderstandings with established business partners. Phone calls and video conferences don’t always help here either.

Obviously, email communication in international business is convenient—it’s cheap and super fast, plus it defeats time zones. What’s more, as English is the standard language of international business, many non-native English speakers feel much more comfortable when writing as opposed to speaking. You’d be surprised how many people can write (either themselves or with the help of online translation tools) decent emails and have a good understanding when reading incoming mail, yet have serious troubles while talking.

However, we’ve seen many cases when email correspondence, both in an initial contact and between longtime business partners, translated into misunderstandings and losses.

Firstly, email is prone to fraud. Even companies such as Google and Facebook fall victim to sophisticated attacks when hackers pose as suppliers, intercept emails, inform about a 'change' in their account number, provide convincing-yet-forged invoices and have thousands of dollars wired to them.

Many types of email fraud can be easily prevented with some basic research and/or proper and secure internal processes, and yet email communication goes wrong much more often because of misinterpretations of a word or two.

For instance, one of our Chinese customers misinterpreted a pricing deadline set by their Russian partners—one party meant a shipping date, yet the other took it for the order placement date. This meant a loss because the Chinese had to pay a higher price as the actual deadline wasn’t met, even though the company was sure it had! 

In another case, our American customer was doing business with a Taiwanese firm and once came across a surprising shipping document. He invested hours, if not days, to search for a possibly competing manufacturer in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, only to realize that ‘Ho Chi Minh City’ was the name of the vessel, not the city of origin stated in an emailed document.

Such quirks could have been avoided by clearly asking questions, double- or triple-checking what everyone says and means. Phone or video calls might have helped, but they aren’t a silver bullet. Though voice communication allows real time double-checking and follow up questions—a good tactic in these cases is to ask the other party to copy you—non-native English speakers are often shy when talking over the phone and might prefer written correspondence.

But cultural stereotypes and preferences are never carved in stone. For instance, one might believe the Asians prefer email, however, voice messaging is truly popular in Asia and they tend to communicate with ‘recorded live’ messages among their friends. At the same time, email is also strong in the US and busy people prefer it, but there’s also a strong phone culture and, most importantly, the voicemail. Americans often listen to all their voicemail messages and respond to those they find of importance.

The perfect communication combination consists of:

  • Regular and clear email communication
  • Regular ongoing video or phone meetings
  • Occasional face to face meetings—at least once per year, but the more - the better
  • Having people on the ground to meet your partners in person both on a regular basis and also in urgent cases.

Have people on the ground

Of course, we applaud email, phone and video conferencing as all these tools are efficient and helpful even with all these quirks and mistakes taken into account. But ideally, companies should have their own people in the country of residence of their business partners—this allows quick face-to-face meetings for important and urgent matters. However, having people on the ground internationally is a luxury many SMEs simply cannot afford.

One possible way of overcoming this challenge is hiring freelancers from platforms such as Upwork. Here one can find consultants, assistants or agents that could, for instance, inspect goods, properties or infrastructure of one's interest. However, freelancers are not relationship builders, let alone experts in specific fields of business: they can be a solution for simple tasks, but building trust and true understanding requires your own people.

For this reason, one will always need to visit a business partner occasionally. If a company has some kind representation in the market of interest, visiting its business partner at least once a year is a good practice. This frequency is also considered appropriate if the relationship is mature.

However, in case of new relationships and partnerships, companies might need to meet their partners in person as often as once a month. It might sound expensive and time consuming, however, you can employ tactics such as inviting and meeting your business partners at various trade shows or other international events.

Or, you can discuss your international trading challenges and opportunities with us—with offices and people in 3 continents and people in all major international markets, we can put you on the right track!

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