Conflicting Deal Cycles: A New York Minute vs. a Chinese Lifetime

I’ve been back in NY for a few weeks and I was recently asked to look at a deal in progress between a US service provider and the local government of third-tier Chinese city. The US side was feeling the pain of recession so they were initially excited by the prospect of a big contract – but their first foray in Chinese negotiation was nerve-wracking and draining. They were describing progress they had made after four months of email negotiation and one visit to the Chinese hinterlands with phrases like ‘scam’, ‘backwards’ and ‘funny business’, so I was curious to get a feel for what was happening. I ran through a set of standard questions and then I gave the American management team my assessment:

“I can’t be sure, but it doesn’t sound like you are being ripped off. In fact, it seems like things are going pretty smoothly”. When I told them that they were on track for another 6 months or so of similar successes before they could expect a solid agreement, they didn’t look happy.

New York has its own special style of deal-making during the best of times, but the economic situation is wearing people down and making them even more impatient and just a bit desperate. Not only do we hate wasting time, but we always want to know exactly where we stand. We respect decisive, straight-forward counter-parties who can give us a clear yes or no. If that means doing a few small test deals to work out the kinks and test the waters, then so be it.

This contrasts with the Chinese style of building life-long relationships that yield profitable transactions when the time is right. Like a winding mountain stream that eventually leads to the ocean, Chinese deals are rarely direct or efficient – and aren’t meant to be. If a potential partner has any character flaws or quirks it is best to find out before there is a fortune at stake. If it takes a long series of meetings over many months to get comfortable with one another, then so be it.

In the old days (2006) there was a safety valve built in to US-Chinese negotiations called “cultural barriers”. When China was a strange, undiscovered territory for US service providers – and Chinese SMEs (small & medium sized enterprise) wouldn’t dream of initiating deals in America – interaction between the two sides was regarded as exotic, specialized and just a little dangerous. People may not have known exactly what they were getting into – but they knew that they were getting into something that was at least a little over their head. Nowadays there is so much press about the difficulty of doing business in China that people think they are forewarned and forearmed about the dangers.

What perils lay in the distant gloom: Lions and tigers and bears — or the Bermuda triangle?
It’s not enough to be cautious and circumspect – you have to know what to be afraid of. New Yorker bravado has been an empty joke since Mayor Dinkins started cleaning up the streets in 1990 (yeah – you heard me. Dinkins) – and reading a few wise-ass articles in the Times about Shenzhen factory conditions does NOT count as cross-cultural training. Americans in general – but the hard-driving New Yorkers in particular – need to keep their eyes open during their first couple of China deals.

Rules for New Yorkers negotiating their first China deal:

    1. Time and scheduling
    It will take a very, very long time. Funny story – trying to rush the timetable will only delay things further as your local counter-parties get nervous and start adding people and extra meetings to try to appease you. Being a type A, table-banging, no-nonsense hard guy doesn’t impress your Chinese counter-parties and handlers. In fact, to them it looks like you are having a hissy-fit. Yup. You’re not “The Donald” — you’re the brat who has to turn off “Sponge Bob”. If you are buying you can move things along a bit, but if you are selling or partnering, I’d be concerned if your negotiation took LESS than 6 months.

    2. Truth and Honesty
    They think they are being polite by telling you what you want to hear. New Yorkers do the same, but instead of them saying, “What a cute baby” or “you look great in those jeans” they are saying, “we’ll wire the money within 60 days” or “it looks like we have a deal”. They are surprised you took them seriously. Not impressed – just surprised. If you want to avoid the worst of the overly polite double-talk, arrange for your own translators and spend an hour discussing background and procedures with them BEFORE your meetings. If you rely on the other side to provide translation services then you are putting yourself at their mercy. And no – not everyone in China speaks English. It’s pretty much a given that your key decision-maker doesn’t – at least not with you.

    3. Dim lights, dusty city.
    If the Chinese are calling you, it probably won’t be from Shanghai or Beijing. Those people have already got a supply chain and service providers they know. Most of the exciting stuff is happening out in 3rd tier cities deep in China’s interior. For New Yorkers, that would be like Syracuse NY or Allentown PA – except in China they have 7 million people and tons of government stimulus money. Expect to take a little plane from Beijing direct to the middle of nowhere, and then drive for 6 hours. Don’t panic – but yeah, you are off the map with no way of getting home and no one knows where you are and no one understands a word you say. Believe it or not, you’re completely safe.

    4. Effort doesn’t count.
    If you are in the countryside, don’t joke about how bad the roads are. In the cities, don’t complain about the traffic or crowds. Don’t whine about how hard it is to get there or the lack of 5 star accommodations. You know how that guy from Texas sounds like when he talks about the sky-scrapers blocking the sun in mid-town Manhattan? Well that’s you in China. This is their home. It’s not quaint or exotic. It’s where their parents grew up and where their children will probably grow old. They are not impressed that you are deigning them with your presence. If your negotiation goes well, you should plan on being there at least twice a year for the duration of your relationship. Make it clear to them that you understand that and are happy about it.

    5. A little goes a little way.
    It’s nice that you can say ‘ni-hao’ and use chopsticks. And yeah, in the sticks they will flatter you and tell you how good your Chinese is. Smile, laugh, and be friendly. But don’t think that you are done. Real compromise with a Chinese counter-party is a huge commitment. If you aren’t prepared to add manpower, put in the travel time and change your operating procedure to accommodate this new business, then you should think twice about starting the negotiation. A China operation isn’t like a fern that you water twice a week. It’s like a relationship that will sour and turn on you if you neglect it.

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