Some of my colleagues and friends thought it was a big risk for me to come to Hungary. Some sugar-coated it, but others used words like ‘stupid’ when describing my decision to start a new career in a new country. I had worked with Mentors & Partners Group and the RISE System, but I did not have much experience living and working in Hungary.
Based on my experiences so far, it would have been stupid for me to stay in the United States. Hungary just has so much potential, but more often than not, Hungarian business owners are too pessimistic to see Hungary for what it really is: a land of opportunity. I come from America, where people are inexplicably proud of everything, even things like their high schools. It’s tradition to be proud, and in many cases, there is no strong justification for this pride. Hungarians, however, are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They have reasons to be proud of their country, but instead choose to limit themselves. Obviously, this bleeds over to their business perspectives, which they also choose to limit. The majority of my practice is representing Hungarian companies on the international market. Much of the time, the hardest part is convincing the business owner that international expansion is not only possible but viable. Once we have an international expansion strategy in place, actually obtaining the business sometimes takes less time than convincing the owner to attempt an international expansion!
This article is an attempt to persuade Hungarian business owners to modify their views to realise Hungary’s true place on the international market. My articles are typically focused on facts and data, so I am going to take a breather and instead focus on my anecdotal experiences while representing Hungarian companies on the international market. I will discuss my international negotiation experiences related to Hungary’s reputation, the situational importance of English-language skills, and how my status as an ‘outsider’ has affected my work.
Hungary’s International Reputation is Strong
When I first started representing Hungarian companies, I was not quite sure how they were perceived internationally. I had done my market research, but it can be hard to find relevant data that covers country-to-country biases. All in all, I have been pleasantly surprised with Hungary’s positive international reputation, as it has made my job a lot easier.
I do my best to stay out of Hungarian politics, but I cannot write this piece without mentioning Viktor Orbán. Love him or hate him, Orbán has put Hungary on the international stage. In the past, I would very rarely read articles about Hungary in publications like The New York Times. Recently, however, there are more and more articles about Hungary, not just the obligatory ones that come out around the time of any country’s national election. This increased presence on the global stage is good for Hungarian business.
Finally, Hungary also benefits from its tourism. People love visiting Budapest, as it’s a beautiful, historical, and safe destination. Every year, it ends up on countless lists for top international destinations. You may not think it matters that your capital is among one of the most beloved international tourist destinations (if you live in certain districts of Pest, you may hate it), but it has significant ramifications for Hungarian businesses. If a business partner likes spending time in your country and has positive overall sentiments about visiting you, it is going to make the negotiation process much, much easier. Just recently, a British business partner suggested a face-to-face meeting with my client. Instead of inviting us to London, they volunteered to fly to Budapest. The Head of Business Development had visited before and enjoyed their time here, so it seems that they were eager to return. This bodes well for our professional relationship and represents a Hungarian luxury that business owners should try to exploit.
Rules for English and International Negotiation
I am not a linguist, but I feel compelled to discuss these language issues because of how frequently they come up. Communication-related problems can make or break a deal, whether it is during the initial contact or at the latter stages of a transa ction. It seems that Hungarian business owners understand the apparent truth that English is essential for international business, but often they do not realise just how situationally important it can be. After much trial and error, I have come up with some language-based rules for international negotiations.
Rule 1: It is ideal to have a native English speaker when targeting the United Kingdom and the United States. Native speakers have the best results, but there is one rare exception: a charismatic non-native speaker. The best non-native speakers can even use their English limitations as a sort of charm that completely disarms their targets . Americans, especially, are less accustomed and therefore more prone to the charm of a European accent.
Rule 2: For many European countries, a non-native English speaker can outperform a native English speaker. The reason for this is simple: it is quite easy for a native English speaker to intimidate a non-native speaker. I have had this experience quite a bit when dealing with German companies. I would call, speak with someone whose English was good, but not perfect, and the conversation would not go so smoothly. When someone speaks a non-native language with another non-native speaker, they feel far less pressure to speak perfectly, and therefore, are much more relaxed and open to doing business.
Rule 3: For negotiations, it is best to have a native English speaker on your team. Negotiations require a command of nuance, so a native speaker on your side is not just beneficial, it is essential. Sure, you can get by without one, but at a minimum, there will be significant headaches as a result of slight miscommunications. More importantly, a native English speaker completely alters the playing field at the start of negotiations. While speaking with many non-native speakers, I have sometimes received this feeling that they are the ones trying to impress me with their language skills. This phenomenon occurred even in situations when I did not have a strong bargaining position at the start of the conversation, but their eagerness to prove significantly improved my position.
Rule 4: A native speaker’s presence is valuable when dealing with a Hungarian branch of an international company. If the headquarters of a company is in another country, HQ typically communicates with its branch offices in English. In this situation, a native English speaker is not just meat in the room during a negotiation; instead, their presence communicates that there will be easy communication between your company and the company’s HQ. Do not underestimate the importance of this: the sheer presence of a native speaker can alleviate a lot of concerns about communication that can sink a deal.
Rule 5: Strong communication skills makes companies more willing to do business with Hungarian companies. Hungarian is an intimidating language, and it makes foreigners feel that Hungary is more closed off than it actually is. This likely decreases the willingness to work with Hungarian companies because they do not want to deal with a continuous language barrier. You can establish a path around that barrier by demonstrating that your team can communicate both effortlessly and frequently. If you demonstrate these strong communication skills, companies will be more willing to do business with your company.
Some of these rules are more obvious than others. To maximise your company’s potential, do your best to follow these rules by hiring someone with the right language skills for the right moments; the ultimate success of a deal can depend upon it.
Representing Hungary: why it’s good to be an ‘outsider’
I have a had a string of success while representing Hungarian businesses, and I believe much of this success comes from my status as an ‘outsider’. First, from a strategic consulting point of view, outsiders can lend perspective. We can look at the very same data yet come up with entirely different conclusions. This lens has enabled me to identify target markets for my clients that had not been on their radars, helping their companies grow. Moreover, I do not have any biases towards European nations, whether positive or negative, and this allows me to evaluate business opportunities and target markets more objectively.
Second, regarding negotiations, Hungarian companies that can afford an American consultant to conduct their international negotiations are seen as serious companies. Thus, having an outsider represent a Hungarian company boosts the company’s position for the entirety of the negotiation process. For this reason, whenever I initiate contact, I always introduce myself as a consultant for a Hungarian company tasked with their international expansion. Therefore, when I ask to speak to the relevant figure, such as the head of business development, my calls almost always go through, or at a minimum, they arrange for a call at a later date. In the end, I can count on one hand the times my contact attempt has been unsuccessful, and this is because larger companies believe in international cooperation with Hungarian companies. There is a general desire to do business with Hungarian companies, so when an outsider is representing them, they know that they can expect an exciting opportunity with a smooth process.
I will be the first to point out that my results here are not because of my sales expertise; I am a much better strategist and negotiator than a pure salesman. But because of my negotiation experience, I know how important it is to emphasise the essentials. Every single aspect of my call lets a potential business partner that I mean business: I am a hired third party, I am a foreigner that presumably charges higher rates, I speak very directly about the reason for my call, and I ask directly for a decision-maker. The subtext is clear.
The reason I have spent so much time emphasising Hungary’s strong reputation is that this reputation can make or break the debut of a new product. For example, I participated in the international debut of the RISE System. My first international presentation about RISE occurred at the European Handball Federation’s Scientific Conference in Vienna. I spoke alongside Miklós Palencsár, RISE’s founder, to a large group of scientists, doctors, psychologists, and the like. These scientists grilled other presenters, attacking both their methodologies and their resulting conclusions. When we presented the RISE System, with emphasis on its Hungarian and European origins, we received a very positive response. We formed relationships that are still paying business dividends to this day.
I do not include this story to pat myself on the back for a successful presentation. No, it is just an excellent example of the attitudes toward Hungarian products. This team of international scientists from throughout Europe could not only accept a Hungarian scientific product, but they also embraced it. Not all countries are so reliable when it comes to scientific products. Many countries in Central and Eastern Europe are seen as places to find cheap labour, but they are not seen as places that can produce innovate ideas and products. Hungarians should not only enjoy their country’s reliability, but they should also capitalise on it.
While running against incumbent Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan famously asked the American public a simple, yet pivotal question: ‘are you better off now than you were four years ago?’ It resonated with most people, who could not answer ‘yes’, and Reagan was elected president a few months later. Hungarian business owners should ask themselves the same question. For the most part, the answer is ‘yes’. Hungary’s economic outlook these days is much better than it was even a few years ago. Indeed, Hungary has a tremendous amount of economic momentum at the moment. Moreover, there is a significant amount of international interest in Hungary, and I see no signs of that subsiding anytime soon.
International businesspeople are always exploring, always looking for new ways to grow their businesses. For them, Hungary is an especially exciting market: it is not just a new market into which they can tap, it is also a source for product and business innovation. This innovativeness makes Hungary unique, setting it apart from its neighbours. But Hungary’s time in the limelight will not last forever. Attitudes, economies, and reputations change. It is up to Hungarian business owners to act now and capitalise on Hungary’s strong reputation and potential.