The culture of exporting

Written by Susanne Baillie

You know the old saying: “When in Beijing … .” OK, it’s Rome, but you get the point. Canadian businesspeople entering Asian markets need more than a top-notch product or service, they need to be culturally sensitive as well, says Laraine Kaminsky, president and founder of Malkam Consultants Ltd., an Ottawa-based firm specializing in cross-cultural awareness and diversity training. “If you try to do business in another world and don’t know the rules, then you might not even get to play the game.” Here are Kaminsky’s seven tips for doing as they do in Asia:

  1. Know the back-story: “Do your homework,” says Kaminsky. “Realize that Asia is a continent, not a country, and each of those countries have different social, cultural, linguistic and political factors that drive business.” In other words, learn the basics about each region’s customs and expectations, language, politics and history. You’d be ill-advised to quote your Japanese colleague as a reference to a potential client in Korea, for example, “because there’s a long-standing historic conflict and hatred between the two countries,” she says.
  2. Prime the pump: “In Asia, what comes first is the relationship, then business,” says Kaminsky. This takes time, so don’t barge in with a let’s-get-down-to-business attitude. “Unless you have a relationship first, they’ll switch right off.” If you’re planning a trip to meet potential clients, don’t make cold calls. “How you’re introduced, who introduces you, where your networks are, how you make connections, where you stay, how you’re dressed, all of those things impact how you’re going to be seen,” she says. To forge the best connections before you go, tap all the resources available to you, including associations, chambers of commerce and Canadian government programs, services and initiatives. For example, she says, “if the embassy or high commission or trade office can send letters of introduction or set up meetings ahead of time for you, then it raises your level of credibility.”
  3. Put time in check: In addition to planning your trip far in advance, realize that in Asia, “time is managed differently,” says Kaminsky. In North America, “we’d invite someone out to a breakfast meeting in order to try and fit as many meetings as we can into a shorter period of time,” she says. “In Asia, don’t expect things to happen as quickly as you would like them to. The distances are bigger, the traffic is worse, and the meetings go on for much longer.” This difference in cultural notions of time “becomes a source of frustration for people who have planned their trip on a North American time concept.” And remember to check the calendar before you go, she advises. Just as it would be difficult for foreigners to conduct business in North America during Christmas holidays, you’ll want to avoid holidays such as Chinese New Year, for example. Find a calendar of foreign celebrations and holidays here:
  4. Look like a pro: “If you’re trying to sell something, the first thing you have to sell is yourself,” says Kaminsky. “All the things that represent you and your business are cues that people use in order to make an assessment of you.” To boost your credibility, have all translation and interpretation work done by professionals, preferably someone with expertise in your industry, says Kaminsky. “A common error people make is to ask an acquaintance who speaks Cantonese, for example, to translate their marketing material or business card, and it just doesn’t work.”
  5. Mind your Ps and Qs: Learn as many of the written and unwritten local business etiquette rules as you can. How many company representatives should attend meetings, and what positions should they hold in the firm? What concerns are there around women traveling alone? (“In China, it’s not really a problem,” says Kaminsky, “but in Japan it would be better to have a male colleague with you.”) Typically, a small gift for potential clients is welcome. “I always believe that people should bring something that represents Canada,” says Kaminsky, such as coins from the Canadian mint, a nice coffee table book or a Canadian-made picture frame. “Some people like to take maple syrup, but I don’t because it’s not something that travels well and it’s not to everybody’s taste.”
  6. Greet well: First impressions count, so get familiar with local customs for greeting people. For example, “in Japan there is no handshake, it is the bow. The lower the person bows, the more respect they’re showing,” says Kaminsky. Then there’s a very formal business card exchange, she adds. When receiving a business card, read it carefully. Don’t just glance at it then stuff it in your pocket, as is often done in North America — that’s a major insult. Get a good business card case and use it.
  7. Eat well: “In Asia, there’s a lot of ceremony around food,” says Kaminsky. Familiarize yourself with local customs and preferences for eating, drinking and hospitality. If you’re headed someplace where everyone eats with chopsticks, practice before you go and show a willingness to learn, she says. It’s OK if you’re not all that proficient — just don’t demand a fork before you even try. The same thing holds true for language: practice a few words and be willing to learn.

© 2003 Susanne Baillie

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