Case 5.1.

How to Insult a Mexican Customer


Señor José Garcia-Lopez, a Mexican importer-distributor, had been negotiating with a Danish manufacturing company for several months when he decided to visit Copenhagen to finalize a distribution agreement and purchase contract. He insisted on coming over as soon as possible.

To accommodate his potential customer, Flemming, the 40 year-old export manager, welcomed Sr. Garcia to Denmark for meetings on Thursday and Friday. Flemming had a flight to Tokyo scheduled for early Saturday, but saw no problem since the Mexican was also leaving Denmark on that Saturday.

The business meetings went very smoothly, and on Friday afternoon Sr. Garcia confided that he looked forward to signing the contract after his return to Mexico City.

That evening the Danes invited Sr. Garcia out for an evening on the town. Flemming and his 21 year-old assistant Margrethe hosted an excellent dinner and then took their Mexican prospect on a tour of Copenhagen nightspots. Around midnight Flemming glanced at this watch.

“Sr. Garcia, as you know, I have a very early flight tomorrow to Tokyo. I hope you’ll forgive me if I leave you now. When you are ready, Margrethe will make sure you get back to your hotel all right. And then she will drive you to the airport tomorrow morning. Have a good flight!” After all the formal goodbyes Flemming left.

Next morning on the way to the airport José Garcia was uncharacteristically silent. Then he turned to the young assistant: “Margrethe, would you please tell your boss that I have decided not to sign that contract after all. It is not your fault of course. If you think about what happened last evening I believe you will understand why I no longer want to do business with your company.”


Case 5.1.

How to Insult a Mexican Customer

Solution and Discussion

This case continues to be one of the most popular in Cross-Cultural Business Behavior. More business school professors have asked permission to use it in their classes than any other.

The Danish company in question had just lost a major export contract to a competitor. They wanted me to figure out what had caused the failure of this negotiation and to help them prevent a similar disaster in the future. The “Mexican Customer” case is especially useful for teaching and training because it involves more than one critical difference in expectations and assumptions about correct business behavior.

Through his ignorance of Rule #2 in international business, “The seller adapts to the buyer,” the unprepared export manager managed to insult his customer not once, but twice!
1. The deal-focused Dane failed to meet his Mexican customer’s relationship-focused expectation of staying with him as long as he wished to party.
2. The egalitarian seller also didn’t realize that Sr. Garcia, coming from a strongly hierarchical culture, would be offended when Flemming left him at the night club with Margrethe. Being both young, female and only an assitant, Margethe lacked appropriate status to be left with Sr. Garcia.
3. Participants in our interactive seminars sometimes point out a third cultural difference: Whereas Flemming apparently considered midnight a bit late, his buyer comes from Mexico where a dinner to celebrate a contract would not even begin until 10:00 pm or so, and then partying would continue as long as the customer wants it to.

Some participants also ask, “Why didn’t Flemming just cancel his Saturday morning flight to Japan so he wouldn’t have to get up so early the next morning?” This would not be not a good idea because a Japanese potential customer might well be seriously offended by a last-minute cancellation.

Had he understood his customer’s expectations, Flemming could have brought a male colleague of similar rank with him to the Friday night outing. Since he did not, the solution is clear: the export manager should have stayed at the night club with Sr. Garcia until his customer was ready to leave.

This complex case also provides an opportunity to ask seminar participants, “What would you have done in this situation?” In my experience, participants from RF/hierarchical cultures find it obvious that Flemming should have stayed on whereas participants from DF/egalitarian cultures are surprised to learn that in the majority of the world’s cultures Flemming’s action would be considered rude and insulting. And that is a very important teaching point indeed.