How To Run A Meeting In China and Manage Your Customer
15 REAL Tips for Working in China
Having returned from a trip to China earlier this week, I wanted to take a few minutes to share some learnings about how to conduct meetings and work with your customer in the People’s Republic. Despite some concerns and disagreements before our arrival, my team was made up of several veterans when it comes to doing in business in China. And the results of the meetings with our customer showed. Were able to successfully re-establish our prior agreements with the customer and were even able to negotiate away some of our risks. If you’re new to working in China or are struggling to find success, here are 15 tips for managing your customer and running meetings in China.
1. Send a Meeting Agenda Ahead of Time
Unlike doing the business in the West where the purposes of a face-to-face meeting are often known and understood in advance, sending a basic agenda ahead of time when conducting meetings in China can help you greatly. Often times, your Chinese customer will need to arrange to have key personnel available, and it’s far more difficult to do this in China than it is in the West. As in the case of my recent trip to China, even though we had discussed our visit over the phone for weeks ahead of time, there was still a vibe of “So why exactly are you here?” in the room on the first day.
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2. …And Don’t Be Surprised if the Agenda Changes
Before I even put my bag down and retrieved my laptop to begin the meeting, my interpreter stated that the customer wanted to change the agenda I had planned for the entire first day. So much so, that I actually started with the topics I had planned Day 2. Don’t be surprised if this happens to you – it is normal. In fact, be grateful because it means the Chinese team is engaged and wants a successful discussion. There is a key point here, though: Don’t get stuck on your agenda, and be prepared to discuss whatever may come up. Have your materials ready to go ahead of time so you can go to any topic.
3. Express Gratitude
Start your meeting off with kind words about the opportunity to meet with your customer. Something like “It’s great to be here in China meeting with you on such an important project” helps kick things off with the right tone. Walking in and getting right down to business as we tend to do in the West does not work well in China and can be off-putting. Equally, at the end of your visit, vocalize how productive the meetings were and how supportive the customer was. You might want to say something like “This has truly been a great week and you’ve been excellent hosts. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to be here.” End on the right note.
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4. Keep Order On Your Side of The Table
At many points during my visit this week, my customer started to argue with themselves, or get into an open debate internally. But just because they do does not mean you can, or should. If there is a disagreement on your side of the table, do not let it take over. Call a break if needed and talk about it in private. Make sure your team is aligned on this before entering the room. Disorder on your side of the table can erode confidence or raise concerns. A “can-do” attitude helps keep your position.
5. Everything Is a Negotiation
If there is one thing I’ve learned from 30+ trips to China and millions of hotel points, it is that everything is a negotiation. Even if you are not negotiating a contract, there are still hints and flavors of negotiation in every meeting you will attend. The Chinese delegation may want something further, and you accept it while you gain a little ground on something else that’s been keeping you up at night. Subtle details are hugely important, so make sure you listen carefully and ask questions often. If a door opens that allows you to gain a little ground, go for it. Earlier this week, when my customer opened up a small door that helped me reduce some of my cost and risk, I gently pushed the door open, obtained their agreement and walked away with a small win.
6. Use Positive Language
Using strong and aggressive language is a huge mistake when working with your customer in China. From a cultural stand point, it can be offensive and make the Chinese team uncomfortable. While it might be acceptable to raise your voice in the West when you get upset in a meeting, having the strength to keep your composure and a generally positive tone will help you succeed. Even if you have to dig your heels in on an important issue, find a way to turn it positive. For example: “Unfortunately, I really can’t accept a single payment that late in the program, but perhaps we can agree to split the payment in half so I can cover the costs of the first half of the project before the end of the year.”
7. Don’t Back Them Into a Corner
When running a meeting, being rude or backing your Chinese counterparts into a corner will almost always get you the opposite of what you want. If the other party is put in an uncomfortable situation, don’t be surprised if the meeting takes a wild turn, or they elect to change the topic. Something like “You need to tell me in the next 5 minutes if I’m wasting my time” can be hugely damaging to progress. Press, but do not force.
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8. Focus On The Relationship
As discussed in our China 101 Primer, relationships are everything in China. They can make or break deals unlike they can anywhere else in the world. Throughout your meetings, be sure to bring up the relationship on several occasions, as well as to express how you want to continue to be a long-term partner to the other party. You might say something like “I understand your view. I would not normally agree to that, but for the benefit of the relationship, I will do it. I would ask for some consideration of….” This is something that will help reinforce a desire of mutual benefit and will reiterate to your customer that you intend to be there for them.
9. Show Respect and Offer Assistance
If it’s not already clear, showing respect is an excellent strategy for working in China and managing your customer. While there will certainly be disagreements along the way, showing respect is something that can easily work to your advantage. On many occasions, my customer has come to my team for advice on how to work with one of our company’s competitors. Funny may it sound, but our competitor who was working on another aspect of the same project, has historically been very abrasive and difficult to work with. But guess what? Over time, the respect we showed to the customer helped us gain ground and influence them more than our competitor was able to, bringing the advantage to our firm.
10. Let Them Decide
Unless it’s of consequence to you, a great way to manage your Chinese customer is to simply present their options. In our case, we often have no real preference for what the customer decides, so long as they decide. Letting the Chinese know their options and allowing them to select the one they prefer is an excellent tactic for building a strong relationship with them. Plus, it gives them the feeling like it was their idea all along.
11. ….And If They Don’t Know, Tell Them
While it’s always good to let your Chinese customer decide, often times, they simply won’t know what is best. Even if there are options, if one is far more appropriate than the other, just tell them you will provide the better one. In my case, there were times I simply had to say something like “There are some options, but I can tell you from my experience that this one is the best one. In the long run, it will give you better results so that is what we plan to do.” When said convincingly and respectfully, more often than not they will agree.
12. Use Hierarchy If Needed
Hierarchy is extremely powerful in China. And it can be useful when you cannot agree on something, or need a decision to be made. While you do not want to use it as an open threat (for instance, “I will have my boss talk to your boss!”), being able to mutually call upon the higher levels of the respective organizations can be advantageous. In our case, we needed to force our customer’s hand a bit to prevent them from backing out of a previous agreement. Our choice words were “I understand you’re concerned, but this was the agreement our leaders made previously and I don’t want to have to reach out to my management. I’m not authorized to change their agreements.”
13. Positioning is Key
Just like everything is a negotiation, the word “positioning” should constantly go through your mind when dealing with your Chinese customer. At one point this week, despite delays within our customer’s organization, they somehow turned it on us. “We have delays, and as a result, we do not think you will be able to reach the milestone. So we want to delay it.” Suddenly, we were the problem! It took several hours in a hot room to turn the tables back the other way. It’s all about the position and which lens you happen to look through at any given time.
14. Document Minutes and Actions
While meetings in the West tend to be more structured and organized, this is not the case in China. You should be prepared to take good notes and action items. Review them at the end of the visit with your customer. If you do not take this upon yourself, the meeting will likely lose a great deal of value because you’ll both walk away with nothing that captured agreements and details.
15. Offer a Meal
Business is often done at the dinner table and not in a conference room in China. At the end of a successful set of meetings, offer a meal to your customer as a sign of respect and appreciation.
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