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Proper etiquette playing big role in international business dealings

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Pamela Eyring instructs a protocol class at the school’s Dubai location in the United Arab Emirates. (Photo/Provided)Pamela Eyring instructs a protocol class at the school’s Dubai location in the United Arab Emirates. (Photo/Provided)

By Chris Cox
Published Nov. 30, 2015
From the Nov. 9, 2015, issue of the Columbia Regional Business Report

No, etiquette school isn’t just about selecting the appropriate dinner forks or the proper way to indulge a fine wine.

“We do not put a book on anyone’s head,” Pamela Eyring said. “And I don’t carry a ruler… anymore.”

Eyring knows her stuff. She walks confidently, dresses smartly and speaks with conviction. And she’s had good practice, too. A graduate herself of the Protocol School of Washington, she now finds herself as president of the company, which now houses its administrative offices in Columbia.

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“It’s not just about the fork and knife,” she said. “It is, and it helps. But it’s about the relationship-building you’re making. That’s what we focus on.”

The school, honored recently at S.C. Biz News’ Roaring 20s as one of the fastest-growing companies in South Carolina, focuses on proper international business etiquette more than anything else. And that is essential in a state which for the last several years has led the country in both foreign-direct investment and per capita foreign-direct investment.

“We’re not the Betty Ford Clinic for really rude people,” Eyring jokes of her business.

Bobby Hitt may understand how vital these tools are more than anyone. The S.C. Commerce Department Secretary always has a team flanking him with protocol notes for each and every venture he takes around the globe.

A research staff helps prep Hitt and Gov. Nikki Haley on customs for every business meeting, and Clarke Thompson, the department’s International Trade Director, is well-schooled in protocol and legacy. And for new ventures, such as when Hitt took a trip to India, he will seek out a local expert like a University of South Carolina professor who happens to be a native of the country.

“There’s no silver bullet to say, ‘Wow, if we could only do this we would win more,’” Hitt said. “We’re winning a lot. I believe we win a lot because we do try to pay attention to culture, we do try to pay attention to protocol and we do try to understand our clients and what makes their business and how they’ve been successful.”

There are big communication gaps between Americans and those they do business with, Eyring said. They are direct in conversation, are very egalitarian, and often give one another accolades. But other countries aren’t frequently like that, she said, and business leaders must understand where both commonalties and gaps are.

Hitt has experienced those gaps firsthand. For example, in the midst of South Carolina’s recruitment of Volvo, Hitt mistakenly believed the car manufacturer’s Swedish leaders might share similar traits with the Germans he often dealt with.

“You quickly realize, ‘Uh oh, I need to back up and make sure my assumptions are correct,’” he said. “No foul balls were hit or anything, but suddenly you realize that’s a little different than I would have expected.”

These are the little thing’s Eyring’s team of six tries to zero in on for clients. As the former Chief of Protocol at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, Eyring was already well-versed in handling four-star generals and various heads of state. Now she’s giving similar customized training in Columbia – the company also offers open enrollment courses in Washington, D.C., and Dubai – for those ready to do business internationally.

Participants practice scenarios where they learn how to play host, give a toast, or how to go through a receiving line at an embassy. They also learn how to network, shed any introverted tendencies and develop small talk skills.

“We focus on business etiquette and we focus on business entertaining,” Eyring said. “Because a lot of companies and corporations, as well as government, have to do that.”

Of course, Hitt’s done plenty of that. His department is full of gifts received from various countries, or chachka as he likes to call it, and he’s been to his share of entertaining dinners with prospective companies.

He and his team reached those evening events after, among other things, careful consideration of culture. Whether that is the formal presentation of a business card in Asia – complete with a two-handed introduction with the thumb and index fingers holding it up – or the kissing of the cheek in parts of Europe.

And that also includes meeting on certain days. In some Asian countries, Eyring and Hitt said, there are superstitions surrounding certain numbers on the calendar. It all plays into the part of international business etiquette.

“We respect their culture, understand their business attributes and find that common language,” Hitt said. “It’s not always easy and sometimes you hit it out of the park and other times you’re adjusting yourself to try to make sure you can do it the best way it needs to be done.”

Reach Chris Cox at 803-726-7545 or on Twitter @chrisbcox.

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