It's very common in the United States for companies to entrust management of their international department to someone who knows how to manage money. More often than not, that person has no international business experience and as such does not understand what type of expenses are necessary for international sales to take place.
One of the biggest misconceptions of the financial type is that there's no reason to spring for a business class ticket to travel. Getting from Point A to Point B is the irrelevant part of the international transaction, and flying coach is good enough. Well, I'm here to inform the CPAs and MBAs of our nation that they have it all wrong.
Think about it: flying from Seattle, Wash., to Amsterdam requires almost nine full hours of uninterrupted flying time. Flying is a bit like playing Russian roulette: you never know who will be sitting next to you for those long hours. So why not put the odds on your employees' side by realizing that the chances of a valuable, professional, captive audience for so many hours might be much more probable in business class than in coach?
Take my story: I used to work for a Brazilian company while stationed in Portland, OR. I had to report to Curitiba every quarter and would fly business class, courtesy of my savvy employer. Flying business class for many years, I made some of the most important international business contacts of my career and even ended up meeting the VP of Purchasing for a very large Fortune 500 company. He ended up buying the products I represented for the next seven years. While it's true that my business class ticket was expensive ($7200), I made up in folds by maximizing my in-flight networking and transforming my seating companion into my next customer at $500,000 a month in sales.
As an employee, your Russian roulette may leave you with a hole in your pocket at times, feeling you might not be able to connect with your traveling companion. If such is your case, here are a few pointers for you:
- Dress in a professional manner. Being well dressed when traveling shows success. Success breeds success, and the chances that the person sitting next to you opens up and talks to you while en route increases exponentially if you're well-groomed.
- Carry your noise canceller headset and a book/review to show people you're pre-disposed to go quiet if they give you the non-verbal cues that they're not interested in talking. (It does happen.)
- Introduce yourself. Many people are uncomfortable talking to strangers. Taking the first step takes the pressure off many travelers who will then be thrilled to have company.
- Have something intelligent to say to break the ice: read a newspaper before flying so you know what's happening in the world.
- Ask questions and then LISTEN. Remember, this isn't about you; it's about turning a stranger into a potential customer or referral. Nothing goes further with people the world over than letting them talk about themselves.
- When you talk, don't hard sell your company. Tell stories that illustrate what you do or give away just enough for your interlocutor to ask for details.
- Don't push your business card onto people. By the end of the trip, people should be eager to exchange business cards.
- Watch your drinking. Nothing is worse than being seated next to an obnoxious drunk who is loud and belligerent.
- Don't argue. If people have political or religious views that differ from yours, always remain polite and respectful. You have the right to state your opinion; but remember, the goal is to make a professional contact, not to replace the high school buddy you lost by moving West.
- Find reasons to stay in touch. If your interlocutor loves caribou hunting, take notes. Once you have his email address, send him articles/information to fuel his passion.
Paying for business class travel should be perceived as an investment by the company and understood by the employee as another professional component that has to be meticulously executed.