4 Key Business Lessons From European Entrepreneurs

I recently returned from a family vacation in Europe and having previously lived and worked extensively there I was once again struck by the distinct cultural differences in business from which American entrepreneurs could learn a thing or two when contemplating business change. And so I present 4 key business lessons from European entrepreneurs.

Lesson 1 from the Italians: Be passionate about your customers. No one can deny that the Italians are a passionate people. One need only witness an animated mobile phone conversation complete with wild hand gestures, or the expressiveness of an Italian driver to know this is true. But successful Italian entrepreneurs are also passionate about their customers. They make a connection with them, recognize them when they return and make them feel welcome. On a small side street in Rome there is a small pizza and pastry shop clearly run by a family that is always packed despite being off of the typical tourist streets. While dining there on possibly the most delicious pizza in the city, I watch as locals pour in and are warmly greeted, provided with recommendations on their selection and served quickly. By the interactions I am under the distinct impression that the customers return daily. While the younger family members prepare the focaccia and serve, the grandfather circulates to each table and counter, commenting positively on what customers have chosen or just smiling warmly and saying hello. Not a customer leaves that shop without the elderly man’s quality connection.

Lesson 2 from the French: Presentation counts. The French are well known for their style and their attention to detail in product presentation is no different. On a small street in Paris where the locals shop for food there is a fruit and vegetable shop which exudes style. The green beans are trimmed and perfectly lined up like pencils in a box, the apples are shiny and the floor is spotless. The berries are nestled in a box all facing up and the greens are wrapped neatly in little bundles. The cheese shop next door has selections carefully displayed on doily topped pedestals with perfect centimeter square samples laid out by each round, and when purchased each chunk is carefully wrapped in paper and closed with an attractive store seal. Customers notice details and tend to equate care of presentation with product and service quality.

Lesson 3 from the Germans: Be punctual. I have not only traveled in Germany but have had German project colleagues, customers and professional staff and while the extent of their cultural propensity for structure and order surpasses even my own, I do like their punctuality, especially after experiencing the lack of regard for being on time that I live with daily in Miami. For Germans, to be punctual is to be respectful and the reverse is also true. You can set your watch by a German train and if you ever want to see a frustrated German pilot, tell him that he has a ramp delay as Air Force One needs to take off, as I witnessed when our journey happened to coincide with that of the President. But pragmatically, consider the time and money wasted in business when meetings are delayed, or restarted due to late arrivals. I recently read in Inc Magazine about a VC who charges angel investors $10 for each minute they are late for a meeting with an entrepreneur. Interesting food for thought!

Lesson 4 from the English: Have a good sense of humor. Clearly the people who brought us Monty Python have a great love of irreverent humor but the English are also masterful at using humor in business to break tension. Their meetings tend to begin with light social interaction and as described in the book When Cultures Collide, even during tense moments of negotiation, careful humor is used to poke fun at the impasse and allow the parties to relax a little and clear their thinking. Now if you’re not a naturally funny person and sense that your client isn’t either then this can be risky but when next faced with an employee or personal error, perhaps recognizing the ridiculous for a moment may help you resist flying off in a rage, reducing the stress of everyone around you and better allowing them to think clearly about solutions.

Cultural differences are fascinating and in our global economy, entrepreneurs must not only be increasingly aware of the natural inclinations of their staff, customers and partners but look for opportunities to incorporate best practices from successful entrepreneurs from other cultures into their own.

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