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Getting Started in Mexico

January 1, 1997
Related Topics: Managing International Operations, Expatriate Management, Featured Article
The folks in marketing worked all weekend to finish the new presentation pieces for the trip. Tom, your sales rep, spent last week in an intensive-study Spanish course to learn some useful phrases. And just before he left for the airport you handed him some currency, a map, a restaurant guide and a book on Mexican culture to study on the plane.

Hours later, you’re feeling a little smug about how well-prepared Tom is going to be for his sales calls in Mexico City. Then you receive a frantic call from him: "I don’t think this is going to work!" he says. "This book you gave me says I need to have a local contact down here in Mexico who helps me arrange who I meet with ahead of time -- not to mention the fact that it’s customary to bring a senior-level exec when doing business down here. I don’t think the Mexicans are going to take me seriously."

The average international business trip is going to run several thousand dollars, and you certainly don’t want cross-cultural misunderstandings to threaten its success. And no matter where you’re sending employees, gaining a general awareness of the culture -- well ahead of time -- is a key element of a profitable trip.

A proper introduction.
The best way to get off on the right foot in Mexico is to establish a relationship with a local representative. This is going to take a little time and research, but it’ll be well worth the effort.

What your company needs is a persona bien colocada, or someone in Mexico who’s well-connected with many people in the industry. "This person is going to figure out who are the right people for you to meet before you ever get there. So when you step off that plane, you’ve already got appointments set up," says Terri Morrison, president of Getting Through Customs based in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania and co-author of the newly released book "Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands."

You shouldn’t be sending anyone to do cold-calling in Mexico. "You don’t go waltzing around like you do in the United States saying, ‘Here’s the greatest technology. Here’s the best price,’" Morrison continues. "People in Mexico do business with somebody they know, they like or they’re related to."

So if Mexico is uncharted territory for your company, how do you find a representative? Start off by talking to some of your business partners. If you work with a Big Six accounting firm, it’s sure to have a few names to pass along. Then try your banker and your attorney. Next, call the Department of Commerce and ask for a U.S. foreign commercial service person in the International Trade Administration. Ask this person for more names of people to contact in Mexico.

"Before you go there, you’ve already figured out maybe 15 people you can interview to be your representative," Morrison explains. And your company could narrow it down to just one or two candidates through phone calls. Once you’ve established who your foreign representative is going to be, your salespeople should work with this person to set up the initial meetings.Mexican communication styles.
So now that you have your foot in the door, make sure you know a few key characteristics of Mexican communication, so you won’t distract your Mexican colleagues with unintentional infractions against the unofficial code of conduct.

One simple rule to keep in mind is that it’s considered impolite to make extended eye contact. "You yield eye contact to the person talking. The listener mainly looks away," Morrison says. "You avoid intense constant eye contact because it could be interpreted as aggression -- or, if it’s a woman and a man, as an invitation."

Another tricky habit to watch: You shouldn’t say "America" or call the people of our country "Americans" when talking with Mexicans. As Morrison explains, they’re Americans too. As part of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), Mexico is considered a North American country. "As a matter of fact," Morrison says, "when you go to Mexico don’t say, ‘Well, in the United States we. . .,’ because they’re in the United States, too. Their [country’s] name is the United States of Mexico." We should refer to our country as the United States of America, or the U.S.A.

As a general rule, be careful of comparing Latin American countries to each other. Historically, there have been many wars between nations, and if you’re not careful, you could end up praising a country that was responsible for the death of your colleague’s grandparents, for example. A couple of other communication pointers: Mexicans stand closer together when speaking, and they expect to spend a good deal of time getting to know each other personally before getting down to business. Mexicans are keenly aware of their upbringing and ancestry, so good topics of conversation include your observations from a visit to an Aztec museum or a description of the place you’re from, establishing your roots.

Nepotism is a good thing.
A Mexican’s first priority is likely to be his or her family. And since employers view it as an obligation that they take care of the people who work for them, it’s not surprising that nepotism is a natural part of the working world in Mexico. It’s common to find companies with several family members on the payroll.

Remembering this, if your sales rep is asked to meet with someone seemingly irrelevant, or an unidentified person joins him or her in a meeting, your coworker should treat this individual as though he or she may be the decision-maker. It could be the person is the patriarch of the family. This also is true in many Asian nations.

"Actually, the United States is rather unusual in its strict practices against hiring relatives," Morrison explains. Instead of viewing the arrangement as a conflict of interest, Mexicans view the employment of family members as a factor in motivation. Mexicans place a high value on being part of a group, and when you couple that with their value of family it makes sense that they’re going to work hard to make their family look good.

In general, establishing business relationships in Mexico is something your company will need to do gradually -- probably not in one trip. And understanding this makes all the difference between feeling frustrated and enjoying the Mexican way of doing business.

Global Workforce, January 1997, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 16-17

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