I had an opportunity to access a top-notch IT service provider for my business. If I hadn’t navigated successfully through some cultural differences, I might have lost it. It’s a common but avoidable occurrence: businesses torpedoing opportunities and partnerships because they haven’t developed cultural dexterity.

Like any business, InterMondo’s IT requirements have to be serviced regularly. We have a strong digital presence and rely heavily on IT. I didn’t want to fall into the trap that SMEs commonly do of neglecting their IT service needs, with often catastrophic results.

But finding the right IT service provider can be tricky. It’s hard to find IT professionals that provide a personalised service that suits the idiosyncrasies of the SME and provides great value for money. There are plenty of ‘dial an IT doctor’ services, but I didn’t want to take a deficit approach to InterMondo’s IT needs. It’s like avoiding going to your dentist on a regular basis and ending up with your entire tooth pulled out at the emergency clinic. So, while I trod water with ad-hoc IT servicing, I sought a regular, dedicated IT support provider for InterMondo.

After Googling some locally based IT outfits and doing a few small trials, I started asking around for personal recommendations. A friend who works at a large inner city private college, asked his IT colleagues at work if they could recommend anyone. One of them (let’s call him Vikram, after Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India’s space program) put his hand up to do the servicing himself and I agreed to trial him.

Vikram is from the beautiful coastal state of Gujarat, birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. With a strong IT background in both India and Australia and bilingual in English and Gujarati, Vikram wants to move into running his own IT business. He’s done contract IT servicing and systems installment with a number of large companies in Australia and is currently contracted to my friend’s college as part of a culturally diverse IT team and to a national supermarket chain. The contracts are temporary – they may or may not be renewed – so the job security is poor. Apart from a quid-pro-quo ‘You do my tax and I’ll do your IT’ arrangement with his accountant, InterMondo was, I believe, his first private client.

My approach was to first establish expectations then test and adjust through trialling Vikram’s services. First in a series of emails, texting and then at our first face-to-face meeting at my office, I set out my expectations: one big job to clean up my devices, install new antivirus software and get my business emailing onto the Cloud. If I were satisfied, I’d have a followup session in a month. If I were happy with that, I’d make it a regular monthly IT session. I also asked for a breakdown in costs prior to beginning and confirmation of his availability (especially for IT emergencies), which he gave me in writing.

The first servicing session went extremely well. Vikram was methodical, clear and he really knew his stuff (now and again I overheard him talking over the phone with his backup advice partner – his cousin, he later explained). I liked the way he listed priority ‘follow up’ issues in his notebook and explained IT concepts to me in lay terms without being patronising or impatient.

Then it came to discussing payment method and invoicing.

Why, I asked myself, had he not appeared to take notice of my earlier emails with guidance included? Was he stalling? Was he trying to save face? Was he doing the dodgy on me? Was he…? I was trying to control my irritation and negative assumptions.

I asked him to email me the details of the account I should transfer funds to. I had assumed that he would issue a tax invoice, I would make an electronic funds transfer and receive a tax receipt that we could process in our bookkeeping and would stand up to scrutiny in the unlikely event that InterMondo were audited.

But here, we hit a little road block – we hadn’t discussed and confirmed expectations.

In a startlingly frank exchange, he confided that he was unsure of the tax consequences of an electronic payment, as he was already contracted to two other companies (claiming tax-free thresholds for both contracts) and therefore didn’t have tax-free status for his own incipient IT business.

‘You can just pay me cash instead’, Vikram said. ‘That should be fine.’

‘No, I’m not doing that’, I said. ‘This is a formal business transaction and I want to be able to record this with the ATO (Australian Tax Office) and make a tax claim. So I need a receipt and I don’t want to pay cash.’

‘Okay, well, I’ll have to charge you (he quoted a somewhat higher figure) to cover my tax charges’.

I gave a short laugh. ‘I’m not going to do that,’ I said. ‘Look, if you were in my place, what would you think if I asked you to pay more every time I wasn’t sure how much I might get taxed?’

‘Yes, I understand,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t be very happy’.

‘Exactly’, I said. ‘And look, if you want to do business with SMEs like this, everyone’s going to say the same thing. And every business wants to be able to make a tax claim. And you can’t, the way you’re suggesting it.’

I then asked him to check with his accountant which business account I should transfer payment funds to. I repeated that I needed a proper tax invoice for reimbursement purposes, according to Australian tax law.

Vikram followed up with his accountant and emailed me the details of his wife’s account. She was registered with an ABN (Australian business number). I was satisfied with this and duly paid. I asked again for a formal tax invoice and receipt. He emailed back to say he didn’t understand how to make the kind of invoice I was asking for.

More email and text to-ing and fro-ing. In one email I hyperlinked two websites with instructions on how to write a tax invoice. Eventually he emailed me a receipt-book carbon copy receipt with no ABN number and no name of the payee/business. I was becoming irritated. Our followup IT session was fast approaching. I hadn’t heard back from him. Was he avoiding me? I wondered.

I didn’t want to proceed with the tax invoice issue unresolved. So I wrote him a brief email to say unfortunately I’d have to cancel our session and could he please forward a proper tax invoice at his earliest convenience. I added, again, instructions on how to do it.

A couple of minutes later, Vikram called me twice. I guessed he was anxious that he was about to blow it. I didn’t answer the calls and shortly after that he emailed me to apologise and to say – yet again – that he didn’t know how to write a tax receipt. Should he do what I advised in my last email? Why, I asked myself, had he not appeared to take notice of my earlier emails with guidance included? Was he stalling? Was he trying to save face? Was he doing the dodgy on me? Was he…? I was trying to control my irritation and negative assumptions, while my partner said: ‘You don’t have to use him again, you know.’  I emailed Vikram to reconfirm my requirements and yes, he should follow this advice for issuing a legal receipt.

Later that evening he sent me a perfect tax invoice, on a professional template. I emailed him back that same evening to thank him and reschedule our session. I finally had my proof that I could go ahead with confidence.

The next morning, I had a coffee catch up with a client, whom I’m providing coaching and communications support for, and I shared the basics of the story, minus the invoicing issue. I told her what an excellent IT professional Vikram was and how good he was at explaining issues and going through steps. She immediately said: ‘Maybe we should get this guy to do our IT – our computers are continually having problems and [her husband] is spending ages trying to work out how to fix it’. Both she and her husband are lawyers – he, formerly the head of one Australia’s top telco legal teams. Both would be great IT clients but I would not recommend Vikram while I was doubtful about his invoicing methods.

Great entrepreneurial spirit and technical expertise can be stymied by inadequate understanding and skill in navigating the culture of a given business environment.

That evening I had my follow-up IT session: it went excellently and all IT issues have been managed and dealt with, together with some critical upgrades. Since then, I’ve had two more sessions. Invoicing has gone smoothly, with receipts issued and extra costs flagged and approved according to my expectations and I’m planning to follow up with recommendations to potential clients. Not only is Vikram an excellent and dedicated, motivated professional but he could provide a crucial service to SME clients like myself.

This encounter reinforced how these kinds of things can really bring professional relations unstuck where there are different cultural values and behaviours at play and neither side is aware of them or is willing to work through them to reach shared goals.  Invoicing provides rich pickings for all kinds of clashes, and that includes between client and provider who on the surface seem culturally similar but who professionally and in other respects may bring very different viewpoints and behaviours to the encounter. Who hasn’t complained about a ‘dodgy tradie’ (tradesperson, in Australian idiom) or a ‘rip-off merchant’?. But I could see the cultural factors at play in this situation on both his and my side, including Australian legal and tax cultures and systems their protocols and formalities; Australian SME culture and business owners’ expectations.

Researching for a recent presentation to the Law Institute of Victoria on cultural issues in legal practice, I found a similar scenario. Australian and Chinese lawyers have endless friction with each other over invoicing. At times this escalates to the point of needing some kind of mediation. Commercial lawyer Chuen Lim of Leem Lawyers is frequently called on to explain to his Chinese counterparts why certain processes and documentation are required in Australian professional settings, and to his Australian counterparts why Chinese lawyers find this excessive and bordering on insulting: ‘Don’t you trust me?’ Chuen instructs his Australian colleagues to treat the invoice as a receipt, write or stamp ‘paid’ and stamp it with the all-important rubber address stamp. Both sides are generally satisfied with this compromise. But it’s small niggles like these that snowball and sour relations…or unravel them.

Business and cultural expert Richard D. Lewis has categorised the characteristics of three predominant groups of people who have different ways of conceptualising time and relationships. Within countries, within businesses and across the world in global teams and business making, people bring these distinct ‘orientations’ to their business and social relations. They have to find a way to understand and navigate these differences to achieve their desired outcomes. Often one party will have to make allowances for the legal, political or cultural framework they are working within. In our case, Vikram had to make adjustments to the tax setting where he is setting up his business. For my part – if I wanted to persevere and use Vikram’s IT skills – I had to make adjustments to Vikram’s behaviours.

Lack of cultural effectiveness may bring your business undone

Cultural values and behaviours we bring to a business encounter – adapted from Richard D. Lewis ‘When Cultures Collide’

This chart (click to see the chart in full screen) sets out the three cultural characteristics described by Lewis, and (broadly) some of the the different behaviours and values Vikram and I brought to the encounter**.

To your eyes, what you may see is questionable legality –  thus the ‘shonky’ tradie or service provider. So it may prove to be. There will often be poor business planning in the mix. But great entrepreneurial spirit and technical expertise can be stymied by inadequate understanding and skill in navigating the culture of a given business environment. Together with this are issues of listening, patience and unconscious biases of both client and service provider.

Vikram clearly was inexperienced in processes and expectations of this kind of service provision in an Australian mainstream business context. But with patience and goodwill, by establishing expectations and boundaries, by reinforcing and working respectfully but firmly through the issues, potential setbacks were overcome. The results were positive: I achieved my goal of receiving good IT support and proper invoicing. Vikram achieved his of receiving fees for service, plus some vital ‘take-outs’ which he will take to his next IT servicing encounter.

*Names and some details have been altered for privacy
**These assessments are not intended to represent all situations or to indicate approbation or criticism