Last week I led an Australian financial services delegation to the Asian Financial Forum in Hong Kong. Over five days, we explored business and investment opportunities in Asia, listened to high ranking officials from Mainland China and around the region, conducted a one day visit to Shenzhen and networked with many local entrepreneurs, investors, businesses and large multi-national companies. By the end of our visit, everyone (including me!) had run out of business cards!
During the process of facilitating this program, and observing our delegates during their initial engagement with potential investors and business partners, I made a note of some key points that are extremely relevant and important to anyone looking to do business in Asia:
Listen more, talk less!
In western countries, we do have a tendency to talk too much! We’re passionate about what we do, we want to get results and, knowing that we don’t have much time to make an impression, we often start pitching our capabilities or products before we’ve spent enough time exploring the needs, desires and aspirations of the people we’re talking to. In Asian countries this can come across as arrogant, discourteous and even rude and, whilst it may not be apparent at the time, its likely to cut things off before they’ve even got started! It takes longer but you’ll get better results if you take the time to ask open questions, listen carefully to the answers, and tailor your products or capabilities to their needs rather than yours!
Prepare your pitch properly
When we went to Shenzhen and visited the Deputy Director-General of the Financial Development department of the Government of Shenzhen, we were each handed a beautifully presented brochure with details of Shenzhen’s natural advantages as a financial services centre and the reasons to establish a business there. This was an expensive document, in colour, with photos, and of course translated into English and Chinese. In comparison, our own documentation is often shabby and, worst of all, in English only, with no Chinese translation. If you want some clues as to how to present your capabilities to an Asian audience, take great notice into how they present their credentials to you!
Asia is not one country
It’s absurd to think that you can have an “Asian strategy” and treat Asia as one single market. The differences, idiosyncrasies and complexities of say Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Korea when compared with Mainland China, India, Vietnam and Indonesia are so diverse that you could spend a lifetime trying to understand them all….and even then you would find it hard to distill your thoughts into a single document. Even China isn’t one market due to the startling differences between North, South, East and West. No, you need to do your research, settle on one (or maybe two) markets and then work out from there, For example, start in Hong Kong and work towards Taiwan and then Shanghai. Or start in Korea and work your way into Japan. It’s no different to how you would approach an entry strategy for Europe.
Focus on building relationships, not contracts
There’s a saying in China that you don’t talk business “until the third cup of tea!” In other words, you build the relationship first and only then should you focus on the business deal. This can appear tiresome, long-winded and unnecessary, but it’s the way business is done in China (and Asia more generally) and you ignore this at your peril. Make the time to get to know your potential business partners, talk about their country, teach them about your culture, extend the hand of friendship and tell them about your interests, hobbies and passions. When you’ve exhausted every possible topic of conversation, and when the timing feels right, offer to start talking business! You’ll get a better result this way.
Send your best people
We were lucky in Hong Kong that all of our delegates were the most senior executives within their organisations or the actual business owners themselves. But we heard stories of how other companies had failed due to sending the B team instead of the A team! This is an obvious but common mistake. It goes without saying that “the opportunity in Asia is complex but the prize is great”. Success in Asia will dwarf your current operation. If you’re serious about success, and you want to give yourself the best chance to succeed, send your brightest and best people to do the job!