I remember the email well, although this was more than 15 years ago. Working as a global business advisor, it came from a potential business partner in mainland China and it started out promising. “Planning our visit to USA so we can finalize our partnership.” Then my heart sank as it continued “We will arrive the afternoon of December 24th. We will want to get good rest and then meet up with you and your team for lunch next day. Maybe we could visit your offices that afternoon to continue our discussions.”
I was working with a fast-growing startup company at the time and we had been engaged in discussions with this large insurance group in the hopes of a profitable entry into the vast Chinese market. It would be quite the coup to have them traveling to the US to meet with us and finalize a deal.
Yet to almost all of you reading this today, it is obvious that the dates selected for these important business discussions would be far from ideal. In fact, I remember politely explaining to our potential business partners that these would not be good dates for us. However, the experience left me with the clear realization that our Chinese partners knew very little about our culture and maybe even less about our values and how our company operated.
You might find this hard to believe. But consider the opposite scenario. I remember a client of mine years later who already had booked his flight to Shanghai for a weeklong visit at the end of January and then complaining to me about several of his prospective customers giving him a hard time scheduling meetings, lunches and dinners. I had to explain to him that he was going to be arriving on the first day of the Chinese New Year celebrations and that it was the equivalent of trying to schedule meetings on Christmas Day or — in the United States — on the fourth Thursday in November (Thanksgiving Day).
The number one lesson that I share with all of my clients when acting as their global business advisor is to take the time to learn about the local culture before you do business there. Everyone around the world takes pride in where they are from, the customs of their state, their city, or province. Learn when they have their holidays. Be curious about their local sports teams. Make the effort to understand what is going on in their environment and how it is affecting the people you are interacting with.
When I first started traveling to Asia more than 20 years ago, I would call the hotel about a week before my arrival and asked them to save me the local newspaper for each day before my arrival and have all of the issues waiting for me when I checked in. This way I could catch up on the local news upon my arrival and before my first meetings. I would know about the local sports stadium that had just been torn down. I would know about the local mayor who had lost her re-election three days before my arrival. And I would know about the local government petition that was making it harder for my client to expand its research and development campus.
Most importantly, the people I was meeting with would know that I cared about what they confronted every day. That I was curious about their culture, their city, their company.Most of the time, they were shocked that I would know these things and they really, really appreciated it.
It went a long way to establishing a trusted relationship. And that is the best foundation for a strong, long-term business partnership.