With a domestic marketing of 300 million customers, the United States represents an alluring yet often an elusive opportunity for foreign entrepreneurs. Phil Rogers explains why it is vital that foreigners doing business in America understand and respect US business culture — from nuanced buying processes to seasonality, ethnicity and evolving attitudes towards selling.
A commonly used definition of culture is: “The way we see and do things around here.” The “here” part of this definition means that there are a number of aspects and levels to a discussion of culture in the US and how it influences business.
Understanding US business culture, both at a high level as well as at a corporate level, is important when it comes to succeeding in the US. Targeting prospects based on an ideal customer profile (which includes cultural preferences) is likely to improve your win ratios as well as increase the likelihood of developing long-term, profitable customer relationships.
1. Some generalisations
Any high level discussion of business culture must rely on generalisations that have many exceptions. As long as you accept this, it is worth discussing current US business culture at a high level and how it might relate to your sales and marketing efforts.
US sales gurus and Hollywood have created a caricature of US business culture based on old sales ideas and Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” personas. While there is some element of truth in this picture, using manipulative sales tricks and focusing on sales above all else is not going to get a new market entrant far.
The emerging business culture
The recession has fast tracked a move to leaner business models where traditional field sales is being downsized in favour of inbound marketing, where content rules. Helping the buyer through their buying process is the new model. Real world expertise that can save the buyer time, money and reputation is highly valued. A combination of tough economic times and corporate scandals over the last decade means that old style business entertainment is closely monitored, if not banned, by many firms.
US business puts a lot of focus on charitable giving and volunteerism. Most companies have active corporate citizenship programs with company non-profit foundations and initiatives to encourage employee volunteerism. Developing your own social program is valuable both from a business perspective and to elevate your own mission. Committing a percentage of sales or profits to a charity is a common way to approach it. Allowing your employees paid time for volunteer activities is another way of showing commitment to social responsibility.
Sustainability is now a major issue when it comes to buying decisions. Buying organisations are unlikely to pay a premium for sustainable products and services, but it can be a winning strategy if all other factors are equal.
A focus on supporting minority and women-owned businesses is another important aspect of both government and private sector US business culture. Many government agencies and corporations have specific purchasing goals so partnering with a certified minority or women-owned businesses can be an effective strategy, particularly if this strategy is linked to your organisation’s broader mission.
The increased use of collaboration is another big trend. Social media platforms, such as blogs, LinkedIn and Twitter, make it far easier to find, be found, assess and collaborate with potential partners. One caveat: it is a lot easier to create a partnership than create value through a partnership relationship. Creating value through alliances requires specialist expertise, the allocation of resources and disciplined processes. Look for outside help if you do not have that expertise.
The overall cycle
The overall US culture provides some common themes with regard to the level and focus on business activity. A big surprise for many international firms is the slowdown from late May (Memorial Day) through to early September (Labor Day). It is tough to get much happening from a business development perspective, particularly over the July/August summer vacation period. Thanksgiving (end of November) through to New Year is also a slower period, but business activity continues at a reasonable level for B2B decisions. Like anywhere, specific sectors have characteristic seasonality, with a big portion of retail sales happening in the fourth quarter.