As an American who has now called Russia home for 19 years, I love negotiating on behalf of Russian businesses with their Western counterparts.
Lately, I’ve taken special notice of the question “Do they have money?” often within 15 minutes of the beginning of the meeting. This question can take different forms such as “Are they ready to sign?” or “Do they understand why we are meeting?” but the point is the same, the Russian businessperson will want to quickly understand whether their Western counterpart is worth their time.
I may not know much, but I am well aware that it’s not usually a good idea to ask a girl to marry you on the first date. With that, I often find myself encouraging my Russian friends to not rush things, but to simply enjoy the process.
Unfortunately, it is often a misunderstanding early on a first date that can spell the end of what could be a fantastic romantic relationship, and the same is true in business.
Based on the first date question “Do they have money?” here’s a pair of paradoxes I have learned while working for Russian businesses:
1. Russians aren't famous for punctuality, but once the meeting starts, they will want to move forward quickly
Russians will often want a very quick and frank discussion so that they can understand whether the business relationship is worth their time. Americans, on the other hand, will usually show up to the meeting on time, but will want to create a trust building process that will seem bafflingly lengthy to the Russians. The problem is that the Russians will understand this process to be a signal of disinterest by the Western partners.
2. Russians are well known for bureaucracy, but are more spontaneous than their Western counterparts
Relating to the previous point, if they understood that the Westerner is not interested in partnership, they will often simply begin looking for other partners, without completing the process. With all that Russia has to offer the world, I think this is incredibly unfortunate. This is why I am spending more and more time working with Russians in better understanding how to relate to Westerners.
So, what can you do if the timing between you and your Russian counterpart is out of sync? Before judging and walking away after just the first date, consider the following.
Both the Western and Russian points of view are incredibly pragmatic... in their own way
You want transparency, the Russian wants to get to work and make sure they will get paid. Fortunately, these two points do not conflict with each other.
Russians value authority over transparency
You will put them at ease if you start the meeting showing what you are capable of, rather than using “small talk” to get a feel of who they are. “Small talk” can always come later, but it is often confusing to Russians if it is used towards the beginning of the talks. (Alternatively, I teach Russians to relax and enjoy the small talk at the beginning of meetings, if that is the way the Westerner wants to start.)
Explain your company’s process by using stories
I was recently working for a Russian company which was in partnership talks with an American company. The American who had come for the talks did a fantastic job of explaining how his company had worked out a similar arrangement already with a company in China. This gave us an idea of how they viewed the process of partnership formation, showed us that it was already working, and also gave us a good understanding of the length of the process.
Stay engaged with your Russian counterpart as your company goes through its process
If you keep silent, the Russians might understand you are not interested, and look elsewhere for potential partners, and you might lose a fantastic deal.
Russia has much to offer the world, of course, in natural resources, manufacturing, and technology. I have also been intrigued as of late, in how much Russia has to offer in educational systems, the arts, and mind-blowing tourism destinations.
So, don’t miss out on what could be years of mutually beneficial relationship for your business, simply because of a small misunderstanding on your first date.
Andy Frecka was born and raised in the great state of Ohio in the USA, but for the past 19 years is proud to call Russia his home. He is the founder and marketing director of Expat Flat, a Moscow real estate agency, and in recent years has enjoyed working in negotiations between various Russian and Western businesses. Andy also runs the Russian language blog "Amerikanets," speaks frequently on foreign business relations, and is the author of Matryoshka: Как вести бизнес с иностранцами (How to do business with foreigners).
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