Keys to Effective Communication With Overseas Principals

by Sid Ragona, Ph.D., Ragona Scientific

When a North American rep takes on a foreign principal, not only does it require every one of the same skills one currently uses with a domestic principal but also demands that a whole host of additional skills be added to the rep toolbox.

We all know that communication, trust and laying the ground rules at the beginning before any agreement is signed, are some of the major factors in helping to foster a long and profitable relationship. This is even more important when dealing with overseas principals. First of all due to time differences, a great deal of communication is via email, and irrespective of their level of English, what one reads and understands may be subtly different from what is actually being conveyed.

One of the biggest complaints I hear from foreign principals about the English language is that there are more than two words for everything and there are subtle shifts in understanding when different words are used. Conversely, the emails from foreign principals can seem terse due to the word selection and sentence construction, especially when they are trying to say “no.” In general, the Japanese prefer not to use the word “no” and some Northern European countries’ default response to many questions is a “no,” when in fact we in North America want either a “yes” or alternatively “no, but we can do the following instead” response. The miscommunications that occur in email even occur when dealing with Native English speakers such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and often it is the injection of humor that is poorly understood and is easily interpreted as rudeness. Fortunately the good news for the North American rep is that one does not have to be an expert in cultural or linguistic nuances of each particular country, since the key to avoiding confusion is, as always, to pick up the phone and have a good social chat and then a discussion about what needs to be accomplished.

In addition to the subtle shifts in understanding due to language, one of the most bewildering aspects of representing an overseas company is the number of holidays they take. Not only do they have numerous vacations, but the vacations are taken seriously, and emails and phone calls are almost never returned. More than once I have seen a service department’s automated email state the dreaded lines “we will be on vacation for the next three weeks and will respond to any emergencies as soon as we return.” As incredible as this may seem, it is often not viewed by them as a concern, since in their view of the world, they selected their vacation when everyone else is taking three-four weeks off. For example, continental Europe almost shuts down in August. Again the solutions are quite easy. Be proactive: ask for the holiday schedule, ask who the backup is while they are away and hope there is one.

As with any relationship, due diligence and a solid contract are required. Agreements with foreign principals often have the same variability as domestic agreements and pretty much cover many of the same issues of responsibilities, termination clauses, duration, etc. For specific advice on international agreements I would highly recommend the MANA guideline for international agreements, as well as talking with other reps.


Sid Ragona, Ph.D. is the owner of Ragona Scientific, a rep company that specializes in high end microscopy and surface characterization equipment for industry and universities throughout the U.S.A. and Canada. In addition Ragona is a SCORE business mentor and also teaches classes on entrepreneurship and sales.