Same language, different culture

Establishing a business relationship in the UK is like dating

  •  | 
Print this page by Joan Tupponce

Before setting up an office for 24 Hour Co. in London, Colleen Jolly rushed out and bought 10 pairs of panty hose. She had read in a book on doing business in the United Kingdom that women should always wear panty hose with a skirt or dress.

“I wore the hose with pumps and a skirt,” she says. When she looked around, she made an important discovery. “Women were not wearing pantyhose.”

Jolly quickly discovered that you have to experience a culture before you are privy to all the “dos” and “don’ts.” “When I brought my business partner Dennis Fitzgerald to London everything — the transit system, food, money — was brand new to him,” she says. “It’s a different culture even though we share a language.”

Jolly decided to open an office in London after being a presenter at an Association for Proposal Management Professionals conference in the UK. “I saw there was nothing quite like our company over there,” she says. “I thought with the right partnering this could be a good market for us.” Her company specializes in proposal graphics and desktop publishing.

She learned that UK companies would rather deal with a London-based firm than one in the U.S. “There is a real buy-local vibe with the British,” she says. “They want to develop relationships. In the States I have customers I have never met because we work through e-mail.”

She likens establishing a business relationship in the UK to dating. “They want to meet you multiple times and go out to lunch and dinner,” she says. “They want to know you as a person before doing business with you.”

Currently, the company’s London office has a part-time salesperson and three freelancers. Jolly travels to London about every six weeks to meet with clients. “We work through our UK office for [jobs] in Australia and the Netherlands,” she says. “We have also started working with South Africa through our U.S. office.”

A week after Jolly launched the London office, the UK announced it was in a recession. Albeit slow at first, business, mostly corporate work as opposed to government contracts, is gaining momentum. Yet, the UK represented only a small portion, $35,000, of the company’s annual revenue in 2010 of $2.3 million. 
During her time in there, Jolly has made several observations. For example, while business suits are the norm for men, they “do wear colors they wouldn’t wear here like a bright pink shirt with a suit.” She also suggests never wearing shoes “you can’t walk 10 blocks in. If you’re meeting someone, and you’re going out to lunch, they expect you to walk and take transit.”

Women doing business in London also should be prepared for a “friendlier” business conversation between men and women. In a corporate setting, for instance, a man might offhandedly comment on a woman’s appearance. “There is more awareness of what you are wearing and the signals you might be sending off,” Jolly says.
She tries to stay off the beaten path when touring London. She likes to visit the small observatory in Greenwich. “I saw the Prime Meridian where time begins,” she says. She enjoys walking around the city, especially when local markets open. Two of her favorite areas are Brick Lane, an artsy community, and Borough Market, which offers everything from local produce to French pâtés made by local artisans. 

The city’s economy
London has a diversified economic mix and a busy port.  The capital of the United Kingdom has a bustling financial district that includes the London Stock Exchange as well as a thriving tourist industry. It is a transportation hub with two airports, a high-speed rail line and a busy roadway system. Companies headquartered in London include The British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) with more than 22,000 staff members; the beleaguered BP, whose name has become synonymous with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; The Capita Group Plc., a business process outsourcing company; and Invensys Plc, a global engineering and information technology company.

Where to stay
London’s hotel offerings are as varied as the areas of the city. The Landmark London, located in central London, is connected to the Marylebone railway and “tube” (subway) station. It is close to Piccadilly Circus and the theater district. The Langham in London’s West End is located near museums and restaurants and just minutes from the city’s commercial district. You’ll also find The Churchill in the West End near Soho, Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace.

showhide shortcuts