In Mel Gibson’s romance fantasy film ‘What Women Want’, an advertising executive suddenly develops the ability to hear women’s thoughts. Don’t you wish you had the ability to hear the thoughts of your Asian acquaintances too when, despite your best efforts, you are told that your business proposal is ‘respectfully’ declined?
Where did it all go wrong? The culprit could very well be in your manner of negotiation. Don’t make the mistake of taking the ‘one size fits all’ approach to Asia when it comes to negotiations.
Here are some quirky but handy negotiation tips for you to employ when you hammer out a deal in Asia.
1. Making a lasting first impression
If there is only one piece of advice you want to take away, it is this. In Asia, first impressions matter, a lot..
Us Singaporeans may be used to taking off our shoes at the door, but our Western colleagues may not be. Remind them not to turn up in Japan with an off-colour joke about having to leave their shoes outside the door! Your Japanese partner may not expect them to know their country’s etiquette but following them without being prompted is sure to earn you guys some brownie points.
Back home, your company may pride itself on being a ‘shorts and t-shirt’ company but taking that casual attitude to Japan, where you will be surrounded by executives in sharp suits is the last thing you want.
If you are in Philippines, take care to greet your hosts in the order of their seniority otherwise you risk offending the people who matter.
You may have learnt to present your business card faced up with both hands but don’t forget to accept one with courtesy instead of stuffing it into your back pocket! That’s disrespect 101 right there!
Lastly, lose the loose talk. Don’t welcome your counterpart with “You won’t believe who sat next to me in the plane…” Most of Asia equates verbosity with…ahem…indiscipline. You surely don’t want that.
2. Coax, don’t bully
You have sold ice to the Eskimos and broccoli to kids. You play hard ball and are never the first to blink. You would be a hit, right? Unfortunately, the answer is a big fat no. Bullying rarely works.
You may have found your match in skilful negotiators from India but pushing them relentlessly to get as close to your magic figure is sure to spell disaster. Under pressure to respond, they might tell you what you want to hear, which could be far removed from the ground reality.
Similarly, cornering your Indonesian counterparts is sure to be counterproductive too. Asking too many pointed questions or making an aggressive pitch may see them retreat to their shell. And before you know it, the meeting could go round in circles, leaving you frustrated with the lack of clarity.
3. Group level meetings
Heard of too many cooks spoiling the broth? Nope, business negotiators in Asia have no idea what you are talking about! When it comes to business meetings, even the non-critical ones, you will most likely be greeted by a group of executives.
Across countries, be prepared to speak to a group of decision-makers. Consensus is appreciated, while hierarchy is respected. Go figure!
Read also: 8 Mistakes to Avoid in Salary Negotiations
4. Be patient
Skyscrapers, self-driving cars and bullet trains, Asia loves technology and advancement. But there are some things that haven’t changed over the years. Boardroom negotiation is one of them.
You’ve met the top brass of a potential partner company in Malaysia. After hours of meetings, the official in charge seems happy with your proposal and produces a contract for you to sign. Time to pop the bubbly? Not quite.
In these parts, a contract could mean nothing more than an expression of interest. In fact, it signals the beginning of discussions, not the end! The decision process is reserved for the higher echelons of management and may take from days to weeks. The hurried or hasty sorts are not friends of the Asians.
Relationships are key here so nurture them over a period. You are sure to find favour.
5. Losing face
Negotiating is a lot like playing poker. You are with strangers on a table and each of you tries to guess the other’s hand. You win some, you lose some. You trash talk, then sponsor a round of drinks. Everyone is happy, life goes on. Well, not really if you are in Asia.
It may read a bit funny but ‘losing face’ is the one pitfall you want to stay clear off in Asia.
A face is nothing but a metaphor for social standing, pride, and respect. From Japan, Singapore, Malaysia to Philippines, if there is a remark made inadvertently that causes your Asian associate embarrassment or discomfort, they lose ‘face’.
In business, telling it as it is for the benefit of all may seem like the most logical thing to do for you. But that is sure to backfire in Asia.
In Korea, for instance, you are likely to deal with masterful negotiators who like to build trust over a period of time and then slow things down before taking it further. That’s not ideal at all but working in a calm manner and staying polite at all times is the best you can do. Any kind of confrontation or harsh communication is sure to irk them. No words will be said but don’t be surprised if the company’s executives suddenly go incommunicado despite your numerous attempts.
6. When ‘yes’ means no
Yes means yes. No means no. But if you’re in Asia, you better brush up on the numerous variations of these two simple words.
In the midst of hectic negotiations, your client may nod his head or say ‘yes’. ‘Yes’ may mean a sign of consent where you come from but in places like Thailand, it is just an acknowledgement that your words have been heard and have no bearing on the final decision. Had a meeting where you couldn’t find consensus? Your client will still never say ‘no’.
Instead, you might receive a response like ‘maybe’ or ‘let’s see’ or ‘I am not sure’. Don’t hinge your hopes on a ‘great presentation’ or ‘good product’ either. Even during the fiercest of negotiations, where there is no chance of a mutually acceptable deal, you will still find the Thai executive calm, respectful and polite.
We hope these tips help you as your expand your horizon and start doing business in other parts of Asia. As Singaporeans, we may think that we’re well travelled in these Asian countries and that this is nothing new. But striking business deals in these countries aren’t quite the same as haggling over the price of a souvenir. So, take heed and all the best!