How I lost a huge deal due to a 9″

If there is anyone who is familiar with the Chinese business market and knows all its quirks and nuances, it is the Israeli businessperson, Avi Huberman. Avi holds an impressive record of thousands of hours engaging with Chinese business people long before anyone in Israel even dreamed of setting foot in this enormous country. Avi is a business mentor and a consultant on how to do business in China.

I know Avi for many years, and invited him to share his insights as to this fascinating culture that is so different from what we know.

“Avi, coffee? Add sugar?”

“One and a half please, Mikhal. Let me tell you a little story that clearly demonstrates the differences between the Western global business world and the Chinese one.”

“Please do, Avi, I am always up for a good story.”

“A couple of years ago I attended an event in honor of a very important agreement signing, held in a big fancy room in the top floor of one of the most luxurious hotels in China. The view was spectacular. You could see the river illuminated by sailing vessels and the surrounding skyscrapers. Inside the fancy room, there was a large round table and as I looked around, I recognized only a few of the 30 guests,who were all dressed up, looking formal. Around us, there were 10 waiters and waitresses in uniforms, running back and forth generously loading gourmet food and beverages on our table.

One of the first things you notice when you get to know the Chinese business world, is that in China there is no such thing as an event that does not include a ceremony and speeches.

The meeting began with pouring a glass of wine to make a toast – “Gānbēi”, the Chinese equivalent for “Cheers”. The host, who was also the CEO of the company, got up and made a toast in Chinese, which was quickly translated by the interpreter sitting beside me. He held up his glass and all the guests followed him while cheering “Gānbēi”.

We poured another glass of wine and I realized it was my turn to make a toast. I didn’t have a choice but to stand up, all 5’9 of me, and congratulate for the agreement and the opportunity presented to us. I concluded by expressing my appreciation to the host and his support. The 5′ tall host stood up and then I, without thinking too much, raised the glass in my hand towards him, gesturing another toast

Silence reigned in the room.

The atmosphere changed all at once, as all the guests faces suddenly turned gloomy. I had a feeling something went wrong but I couldn’t understand what it was exactly.”

“What happened? What went wrong?” I ask.

“As strange as it may sound Mikhal, the problem was me being taller. My glass of wine was raised higher than that of my host and so I embarrassed him in front of his people, and that is an unforgivable mistake in China. It meant that the deal we worked on for so long, nearly two years, went down the drain.”

“Wow! Where does this come from?”

“Respect your elders, your boss, your teacher and your governor. These are principals held in China for the last 2,500 years. Confucius bestowed the order; a clear set of rules as to the relationship and behavior between father and son, a governor and his governed, a teacher and his disciples, according to which obedience and modesty prevent dishonor.”

“I must say Avi, it sounds like a pretty stressful situation. How can you even prepare for such an encounter? It seems the Chinese business world has a set of codes that is so different from ours.”

“Well Mikhal, there are some basic things one needs to know and I’d be happy to share some tips with you and your readers based on my own personal experience as well as that of others, who met more than one or two Chinese people. Are you up for it?”

“Of course.”

Here are Avi’s tips that can help you prepare to a meeting with business people in China:

Identify the “Boss”

Right at the very beginning of the meeting, while everyone are exchanging business cards, try to figure out who is the person leading the Chinese team. In the past, it was usually the older man who led the group, but these days it may very well be a younger person who serves as the “Boss”.

When introducing your company and during your presentation make sure you address your speech mainly at him and make sure that he gets most of the attention. You can even try to incorporate him in the conversation in order to make him feel he is the one running the show.

Flattery goes a long way in China, so shower your host with endless complements. Make sure to profile him in advance through your contacts, resources and any other way you can.

Set a goal for the meeting

When preparing for the meeting it is very important to set a specific goal, be it an introductory meeting or one held in order to present a business initiative, a product or service.

You have to set a goal: another meeting in China with the mayor, a joint meal, a tour in the factory, etc.

Social Contribution

At the meeting, present the social contribution you bring to the Chinese people. Do not present the financial advantages and do not focus on the potential of maximizing the company profits. Remember, the Chinese people are a collective society and they appreciate all that is considered a contribution to the foundation and advancement of the social fabric. The Chinese society is different from the Western society and the Chinese people are not motivated by individualism or capitalism, and so maximizing profits is not considered a top priority.

Speak with confidence and passion

Yet do it calmly and without raising your tone of voice. Talk slowly and use the word “we” instead of “I”. The Chinese people consider body language and gestures as very important, and sometime they even arrive to a meeting accompanied by a body language specialist. Therefore, maintaining a calm peaceful body language is much more important than the actual content.

These meeting are usually held in the presence of a Chinese interpreter, and you can ask to bring one. The time it takes to translate what you just said is a perfect opportunity to think and prepare your reply. Prepare your presentation sentences in advance and do not deviate from your written text and maintain the order as planned. Do not be spontaneous, that way you will be more accurate and precise. Say a simple sentence, wait for translation, turn your look to the “Boss” as he might address the commentary, and keep on to the next sentence.

Why do Chinese companies want to make the deal with us?

We have already established that maximizing profits is not the main issue, so it is important to plan and present the organizational structure of the company. Present the leading people of the project/transaction, the managing team and their work experience by using pictures and titles.

Provide supporting documents, thank you letters, etc. Remember, the Chinese businessperson focuses primarily on relationships (sometimes it takes time and a lot of patience) and only then on building the foundation for business. You always have to test their pace. Let them feel as if they have control over the various aspects, including time management.

 A few rules for the presentation

– Use words you consider important in order to indicate and highlight important points.

– Use appropriate colors for the presentation and correct fonts.

– Use bigger fonts for the Chinese characters as opposed to the English ones.

– Add Chinese translation in the slides.

– If placing a Chinese flag, make sure it stands out in comparison with your country’s flag. If you use an image of planet earth, make sure China is in the center.

– At the end of the presentation, you can scan the room and look at everyone but never forget that your look begins and ends with the Boss. You may turn to him and ask “Do you have another wise idea you would like to add?”

– Never ask “Did you understand me?” this is a very typical question for a Western person, but Chinese people consider it an insult. Sometimes it can cost you the deal.

“Wow, Avi, thank you so much. This was fascinating and educating, I’m sure this would be of great value for people working with the Chinese market.”

1 reply
  1. juergen Pintaske
    juergen Pintaske says:

    A very good collection of points in this article. Thanks. We as Chinese Manufacturing Solutions – a UK based company – work in a similar area. The main activity is Mould Tools for the European market and plus small to medium production runs before the tools leave our factory in China to the moulder of our customer’s choice – Germany – UK – Malaysia – Thailand ….. The big advantage on our side we see as our MD speaking Mandarin. This forced him to understand the Chinese culture better – and as result there are no issues ( or at least a lot less… ).


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