Strategies for email and online negotiation with Chinese counter-parties.
Chinese negotiators value relationships more highly than Western negotiators do, which presents a unique set of challenges when deals are being discussed long distance.
Here is our Top 10 list for carrying on successful long-distance negotiations with Chinese counter-parties.
- Send a photo and email signature. Email presents special challenges – assuming that English is your first language and it is not his. He will be uncomfortable and self-conscious using written English, and you have to acknowledge this and take steps to level the playing field early. If you have never met your Chinese counterpart or met in a group setting long ago, consider starting with a cordial introduction – including a photo and some non-business background info. Don’t assume they’ll remember you, that they’ll search the company site or that they’ll automatically check out your profile on LinkedIn. If they don’t know you then they’ll be suspicious and hesitant to work with you. That’s ok if you are ordering a shipment of manufactured goods (maybe), but not if you hope to build a long-term business. No trust, no business.
- Confirm website availability – including links. Can he see your site? What about the videos on your site and newsfeeds? Just because you don’t consider yourself political doesn’t mean that your site isn’t getting the wrong kind of attention. Remember – in China web users won’t see any YouTube, Google, Twitter or Facebook feeds (even if they are embedded in your site) and many other types of web content are blocked to some degree. Skype works for now, but that may change. Google services (such as G+) are hit or miss. If you share a server with a sensitive site, you may be blocked. If you link to Bloomberg, the New York Times or other properties deemed inappropriate by Chinese authorities, you may be blocked. It’s not your fault, but it is your problem.
- Ask what type of platform they prefer. They may prefer VOIP, phone or video conference calls. Or email. Of some kind of SMS (consider signing up for WeChat http://www.wechat.com/en/ ). Email has become commonplace in China, but it wasn’t always so. Remember that Chinese access the internet via mobile phones much more than Americans do – for many Chinese businessmen, smartphones are still their primary device. They may find threaded email conversations burdensome, and prefer short messages.
- Have a fax machine available. Fax machines are less prevalent than they once were in China, but still far more common and useful that they are in the US. Invest in some kind of fax program or app that will allow you to send and receive on your laptop, or get private access to your office machine.
- Schedule conference calls with their time zone in mind. 11 AM EST is convenient for New Yorkers and OK for the West Coast, but incredibly difficult for China. They have a 12 or 13 hour time difference – you’re not winning any friends in Shanghai when you make them hang around the office until midnight for routine calls. Allowing them to log on from home is a C+; scheduling with them in mind is an A.
- Short, simple and frequent messages – no long, complex letters. Save the legalese for the final version of your agreements. Chinese negotiators work better with rapid-fire text exchanges – not 3-page documents.
- Check holidays and timetables. Nothing says “pushy, clueless foreigner” like scheduling calls before (or during) national holidays. I still laugh about the group of Taiwanese analysts who scheduled a visit to NY for Dec 20. It was a critical deal so people took their meetings – but the reception was poor and no one understood what they were doing there. Don’t be that guy. Chinese holiday calendars are easy to find.
- Invite them to visit. This one is a no-brainer, and I don’t understand why it isn’t done more often. The Chinese side almost always talks about your last visit to China or asks about your plans to come. Do the same. You don’t have to offer to pay or nail down any solid dates – but extend a general invitation. It’s very possible that they have studied overseas, have relatives who live in the region or have other interests that they want to share. If they are talking about you visiting China, then it’s just good manners – and common sense – to reciprocate.
- Let them know who is involved in the conversation on your end – and find out who is involved on their side. Two of the big issues with email and online messages are permanence – and forwarding. Who is looking at your messages? This is important everywhere, but when Chinese counter-parties are involved it can take even more complexity. Start by sharing some basic information about your decision-making process – who is involved and how long you expect things to take. Then ask him about his side. This is always a sticky point with Chinese negotiators, and you may not get a complete (or even candid) answer. Still – you might be surprised.
- Relationships first, then transactions. We end up where we begin. The Chinese side of a business deal puts more emphasis on personal relationship, character and trust than– the western side. They want to know who you are, and expect you to find out about them. Americans believe in test orders, contracts and building trust over time. We end up in the same place, but take different routes to get there. When you are discussing business long-distance, it is even more important to make the effort to build a relationship.
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