10 tips for doing business in Latin America

Article posted by Gabriela Castro-Fontoura, on behalf of Sunny Sky Solutions

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Latin America can offer UK businesses just us many opportunities as it offers football fans, gap year students, carnival lovers and beach goers. Beyond stereotypes, this land of 600 million people and 20 different countries is now very much on the radar of British companies. As a consultant based in Uruguay (after 13 years in the UK) and specialising in supporting British companies across the region, these are my top ten tips for doing business with Latin America:

1- Grab a map

Looking at a map will give you an idea of the scale you’re looking at when doing business with Latin America. The whole of Europe, for example, fits into just Brazil. It will also give you an idea of some of the barriers that will affect your logistics, like the Andes or the Amazon Forest. A map will also give you an idea of the distances involved, particularly when you travel to the region (and you will, see below!).

2- Look at the big picture

Before you start looking at each individual market separately (more on that later), look at the big picture. How do these countries really operate? Find out more about Mercosur or the Pacific Alliance, for example. Watch how your competitors and other businesses split the continent. Maybe Central America and South America need to be considered separately? How about Brazil, or Mexico? A small country like Uruguay can be a good base for countries like Brazil or Argentina. A port like Panama’s can be a gateway to the north of South America, Central America and the Caribbean.

3- Look at the small picture

After you’ve looked at the big picture, remember that Latin America has 20 different countries with (almost) 20 different currencies, customs areas, legal frameworks, political developments, economies and idiosyncrasies. Treat each market individually. Doing business is Colombia is not the same as doing business in Mexico and doing business in Venezuela is not the same as doing business in Uruguay.

4- Think strategically

Latin America is not a continent for quick or easy wins, so you need to plan strategically and have at least a 5-year plan. The region will demand considerable resources so you need to be totally committed.

5- Make sure everyone’s involved

Leaving Latin America to the export guy sitting on the corner with no budget at all is not an ideal strategy. Your CEO, MD and directors need to understand what they’re getting into and what role the region plays in your company’s overall strategy.  I always say as well that in order to succeed, you will need, at least at some point, to send in the big guns, so make sure they’re fully involved from the start!

6- Think personally

I can’t say it enough:  business in Latin America is personal and relationships matter (people who do business in the Middle East tell me it’s quite similar there). Whoever you do business with needs to trust you and to know you’re in it for the long run.

7- Take your time

Partly because of the above, and partly due to our staggering bureaucracy, doing business in Latin America is very slow. Decisions aren’t normally quick and paperwork can slow things down considerably. I recently discovered, too, that our polychronic culture doesn’t particularly help…

8- Mind your language

There are two main languages in Latin America: Portuguese in Brazil and Spanish in the rest of the continent. Don’t assume that everyone speaks English. Most people used to working internationally might, and some will speak it fluently, but a lot of people you need to have on board, like salesmen or technicians depending on your business, will not speak English, and if they do, they won’t speak it fluently. Having at least some of your materials translated from the start will help.

9- Keep talking

Latin Americans are very social beings and communication is a must. We’re not the best at emails, though, but make a point of getting in touch – on the phone, WhatsApp, Skype, Facetime, or in person, preferably. You can be straightforward in your questions and you won’t find any mindblowing protocols to follow (stay away from religion or politics, though, unless you’re up for a heated conversation, which most people here love!). Football and music are region-wide passions and great ice-breakers if you need them.

10- Enjoy it!

Above all, enjoy your time doing business in Latin America. I might be biased being Latin American myself but I think this is an amazing continent to learn from. If you’re lucky enough to travel here on business, enjoy it – the more you relax and soak up the atmosphere, the better your business will be anyway! Trust me on that one.

Gabriela is the director of Sunny Sky Solutions, a consultancy born in Yorkshire and now based in Uruguay, that supports UK companies across the region with services like distributor recruitment, lead generation and market research. Gabriela is an economist, the author of The SME Guide to Latin America (now on its second edition) and a huge fan of jelly babies and jaffa cakes alike. You can find out more about her at www.sunnyskysolutions.co.uk