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Global Issues: Communicating with Overseas Prospects

During a flight home to Michigan several weeks back, I struck up a conversation with my seatmate. Her name was Jane, she was a lawyer from Chicago…and she was grumbling about how the tanking economy was drying up her client base.

When Jane asked what I did for a living, I answered that I was a "consultant." Immediately realizing the vagueness of that statement, I added that most of my work was international.

Suddenly perking up, she mentioned she'd love to have some international clients, thinking that with work at home so hard to come by now, that there may very well be work abroad for her or her firm. I told her legal work abroad was definitely a growth industry, at least from my own observations with people I know.

I suggested to Jane she should first try to identify what U.S. and foreign law firms are operating in which countries, and then perhaps assess her own firm's niches and capabilities. I also recommended exploring potential opportunities through the U.S. Department of Commerce, the various AmChams (American Chambers of Commerce abroad) and the national ministries in foreign countries interested in attracting U.S. business.

As we continued to talk, though, it appeared her biggest concern centered on communicating with government officials and prospects who didn't speak English. I then realized something I had taken for granted due to my many years working abroad was a major impediment to this well-educated attorney who wanted to do business overseas.

Keep in mind, once you intend to make a business development trip abroad, you may well need the help of an interpreter for meetings, and things like translating services for printed and visual materials. But first things first: If you are just formulating ideas on countries you may want to target or collect information on, the use of telephonic interpreting services may be the most cost-effective way of determining whether there is a market for your products and services in Country X. You may also discover being able to talk to foreign officials and sales executives abroad through an interpreter may very well open up incredible revenue opportunities for your company—ones you might otherwise not have had.

Simply defined, telephone interpreting is a service connecting human interpreters via telephone to individuals who wish to speak to each other, but do not share a common language. The telephone interpreter converts the spoken language from one language to another, enabling listeners and speakers to understand each other. Interpretation over the telephone most often takes place in consecutive mode, which means the interpreter waits until the speaker finishes speaking before rendering the interpretation into the other language.

The major advantages of using telephone interpreting are virtually endless, but here are a few that are critical:

• Information developed from an interpreted call with a foreign prospect or government official can save you the cost of a pricey overseas trip, in the event the information collected by phone proves to render an opportunity unworkable.

• Using telephone interpreting conveys to the person you are calling that you are very interested in talking to them, as well showing them respect by understanding so much can be lost (i.e., an opportunity) when both parties don't completely comprehend what is being said.

• When calls involve contractual or legal agreements, there is also the option of transcribing them for clarity for all parties.

• If you are intending to eventually have an in-person meeting with the person you are calling, this is a very good way to "break the ice." It also provides the opportunity to discuss how said meeting should be conducted and who should be invited.

It should also be noted that telephone interpreting is very reasonably priced, providing you have researched the organization and person you'll be calling and have written questions on the issues you need to address.

There are many types of organizations that provide telephone interpreting services, including for-profit companies, governmental organizations, non-profit groups, and internal divisions within organizations. The Australian Government, for instance, operates a telephone interpreting service, as do several other foreign governments.

In the U.S., most telephone interpreting services are provided through private companies, one of the largest of which is LLE Language Services (www.lle-inc.com; 877-405-8764). You can also contact the American Translators Association (www.atanet.com) for information on interpreters, translators, and telephone interpreters anywhere in the world.

Although many industries are shrinking at the moment, global telephone interpreting is actually growing each year-by about 20 percent. In fact, according to Common Sense Advisory (www.commonsenseadvisory.com), this industry is expected to grow to $1.2 billion by 2012. Incidentally, before you jump into telephone interpreting, contact CSA, as they publish an annual report describing the best telephone interpreting service providers in the industry.

If your company is genuinely serious about cultivating new business abroad, the use of global telephone interpreting is one of the best ways I know of to collect valuable information, develop a relationship with critical people who may help you succeed, and increase your revenue. Use of this service will also underline in the eyes of those you call that you're serious about conducting global business the right way, and they'll respect you for it.

Ed Lee is a retired U.S. State Department diplomat and Regional Security Officer (RSO) who spent most of his life abroad, protecting U.S. diplomats and American business executives. He is the author of Staying Safe Abroad: Traveling, Working, & Living in a Post-9/11 World. He can be reached at ed@sbrisksolutions.com.