Tim Verbeek | Posted on September 30, 2020
How to adjust to Chinese business etiquettes
As the land of the Dragon opens up to the entire world, bringing new business opportunities for the pharmaceutical market. China is one of the largest producing countries of APIs with many GMP and FDA approved manufacturers. Its rich history (and with their own cultural and social norms) reflects on business culture as well. In this article, we will take a brief look at the Chinese business etiquette- a set of unwritten rules and believes you should follow to avoid being labeled as “the one who has no manners” before even getting a chance to get into the real business talk.
No matter how formal or informal the meeting is, small talk opens up almost every conversation in China. Jumping into the discussion straight to the point is definitely not a part of the Chinese business heritage. To stay on the safe side, pick one of the following topics that are considered polite to talk about during the small talk: geography, climate, art, scenery, traveling experiences (positive ones).
Stay away from political talk and other strong messages and issues. Learning a few everyday phrases will be much appreciated.
Personal relationship and patience
They tend to grow a strong personal relationship with you before selling or buying APIs, and small talk is the way they prefer. Depending on how big is the contract, the process might take several meetings over an extended period before you close the sale.
Insisting on deadlines and precisely determined timings in the process of negotiation is something business people there frown upon. If you want to make deals with China, be very patient. Extending the deadlines or long meeting sessions is part of the game. On the other hand, they appreciate it- patience pays off in China!
Composure and body language
Showing emotions during the meeting is something that could negatively affect the outcome of the negotiations. This applies to both negative and positive feelings, so- no jokes, laugh, excitement, thrill, and especially no anger, sarcasm, irony, and other strong messages.
Instead, put your statements into a format of mild agreement (or disagreement). For example, we will think about how to overcome this sounds much better than blunt no, it can’t be done. Occasional compliments and polite smiles are okay.
When it comes to body language, the message you want to send is: „I’m calm, attentive, formal, I know what I’m doing, and I respect your willingness to do business with me.“
The best way to describe the desirable dress code in Chinese business culture is unpretentious, modest, and conservative. Too much jewelry or bulky accessories are not the best choices for a business meeting. For men, this means a suit with a tie (during summer, open neck shirt is acceptable as well) and for ladies a business dress or suit with a blouse.
The presentation materials and greetings
Make sure you have plenty of proposal copies. The documents should be in black and white, plain, simple language without colorful graphs and strong statements. The people on the other side of the table will show up prepared and expect that you are well prepared as well. I’ll see how it goes and just go with the flow approach is not something they will interpret as good manners and respect.
A business card is the extension of your personality- or at least that’s how Chinese see it. When handing the card out, do it by holding it with both hands and when receiving one, take it with both hands, look at it and carefully put it away in a business card holder or inner pocket with appreciation. Remember, the card is the person’s extension!
It is advisable not to initiate the handshake unless the other side does so. Even then, shake hands briefly and quickly- the firm grip and shake typical for other cultures is not what they are used to. Most often, you’ll receive a greeting in the form of subtle nod and smile. Chinese people also have high respect for authority and so they usually enter the room in hierarchical order. The person with the highest level of seniority should go in first, followed by the next highest-ranking individual.
The numbers you want and don’t want in your proposal
8 is considered as the lucky number.
6 is a number of smoothness and progress.
4 is a taboo number in China- it sounds similar to the word „death,“ and they consider it as unlucky.
73 sounds like „the funeral. “
84 sounds like „having accidents. “
So, if you come up with a 4-step business plan, make up two more steps, so it has 6. Or if you are already working with 83 clients in pharma industry worldwide, maybe it’s best to skip mentioning to your prospect Chinese partner he or she would be your 84th client. You get the idea…
When the meeting is over…
Once the meeting is over, your Chinese partners will stay on their seats and expect you to leave the room first.
The trade is art as much as math
The art of trade and negotiating is all about turning the odds to your favor.
As one of the most important political figures of the other half of XX century, Willy Brandt a German chancellor, once said: „If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen!” („If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m buying, then you have to speak my language!”).
So, make sure to prepare your proposals within the lines of Chinese business etiquette. The world is not such a big place anymore, the API market is pretty much homogenous when it comes to prices and services. It’s these subtle touches, such as following the business etiquette that can make all the difference between success and failure.
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