Working with international clients and offices I’m reminded of a time, years ago (too many for me to comfortably recall) when I was working as a Product Manager for a large technology company.
Based at its European headquarters in Brussels, I travelled for at least 30% of my time and gained great experience learning to deal with the nuances of conducting business with different nationalities. To a large extent my job consisted of a) doing whatever it took to make an angry customer happy* and; b) introducing new exciting products to beta testing clients. The former was challenging in any language but it was in fulfilling the latter that I began formulating the International Red Button Theory.
The premise is simple: Imagine you are introducing a game-changing new technology. It is still officially in Beta but it will revolutionise your customer’s business and ensure they retain the all-important Competitive Edge.
Unless they push the Red Button.
The Red Button is a remainder of the original prototype left accessible during the Beta for debugging, should it be necessary. You inform your customer of the amazing new features but warn them, in no uncertain terms, that pushing the Red Button is a Bad Thing. ‘Unless instructed to do so by Technical Support, you should Never Push The Red Button,’ you say.
What happens next depends entirely on which country you are in at the time.. Below are a few examples. This is International Red Button Theory.
If in Italy, there will be a short delay while your contact confers with his colleagues, whereupon you will be asked to a meeting room, offered an Espresso and then asked what its worth not to push the button. Very enterprising.
If in Germany, the customer will nod gravely and commence erecting a fence around the Red Button. They will then appoint a ‘rotenknopfesmeister’ and ensure both the button and the Meister have the appropriate union representation. The button will never be pushed unless instructed to do so by Technical Support. Very commendable.
In France, the customer immediately pushes the button. He then reminds you that it is his button and he is well within his rights to push it when he pleases. Very true.
In Sweden, the customer quietly accepts the situation and goes home. You never hear from him or her again. Very unsettling.
In Belgium, the Flemish shift manager fastidiously writes all your instructions down in both Dutch and German. He then leaves them for his Walloon colleague. Who only speaks French. And a little English. Very sneaky.
In the Netherlands, the customer absorbs everything you say. Then, a week later you receive a report from him detailing how the Red Button can be bypassed and exactly where the software designers went wrong. Very technical.
I could continue (and may well do) but you get the gist. All the above examples are actually based upon experience – honestly – and serve to highlight the differences in national attitudes and approach. It certainly helps to tailor your approach accordingly. Especially in France.
*at all times remaining within the laws of decency