Johannes Klemeyer and Sujata Banerjee | change.project gmbh
First published M+V’s India Insight in September 2013
The first impression counts – this of course also applies to business trips to India as well as meetings with potential Indian business partners. Being well prepared can be helpful in order to leave a positive first impression.
Travel and arrival
By sending your business partners your itinerary with information on your flight and your hotel, you can definitely be sure that you will be picked up from the airport. This is the point in time that the famous Indian “handholding” will commence. Quite probably your host will be arranging that you have company for every moment of your entire stay. On the flip side, this intensive caring may lead to your having to be quite tactful when you want to indicate that you would like to spend some time alone. The best thing is probably to say you have an urgent phone call to make, professional or private, or something similar. In rare cases, your hosts have received a very direct message in the past that foreign guest wants to be alone, so they maybe waiting for a signal from you that you would like to spend quality time with them.
You are well advised to inform your host in advance about your agenda and any other plans you have concerning your stay. Please remember that an agenda in India is seen more as a point of departure and nobody will stick to it as strictly as you might be used to – unless you have made it clear that you have no room for flexibility – and provided really good reasons for this. If you try to control the agenda and timing without this, all parties will likely end up frustrated.
Are you sure that your card does not only name your position in your company but also your role in the organization and your decision-making power? Bear in mind that your Indian business partner should be able to recognize which position you hold in your company. It is perfectly fine to hand over your card with the words: “This is how I’d like to be called” – this way you can avoid to be called Mr. Michael rather than Mr. Baumann from the beginning. It is even more important to enquire how your counterpart would like to be addressed, (so that this conversation stumbling block can be avoided right from the beginning).
In India Small Talk often stands for “Big Talk”. This means that small talk extends far beyond exchanging pleasantries: doing business with a sustainable result requires a solid foundation for a long-term relationship. In India, the factual level usually grows along with the relationship level. Most Indian business decision makers will only begin to commit towards people they have come to know and trust, however tempting the factsheets and potentials may present themselves. Questions regarding your family or the stepping stones leading to your career are considered appropriate small talk topics as well, so you don’t have to only discuss the weather.
These topics can also provide you with valuable insights on the mindset of your business partner.
Course of negotiation
Please consider the following: there are various possibilities in negotiation. While negotiating with Indians, you may at times have the impression that you are trapped in an endless loop of repetitions and redundancies. These feedback loops can also help cement intermediary results, and whenever you reach a bottleneck situation, it is always better to be able to return to an often reconfirmed consensus, than having to start all over again. However, be prepared if your counterpart comes up with a very specific and committed decision fairly suddenly. In this case you are well advised to react quickly and match your style and speed of delivery of ideas with those of your counterpart to signal your commitment. Also, ensure that you communicate at eye level at all times and that you are not the only initiator of the negotiation – get your partner on board and make it clear that you are acting together. In this context, it is also best to phrase your questions without any assumptions or pre-judgments, but to rather ask on an information level, requesting advice and support to clarify an open issue.
Wearing the appropriate clothes in India can be a bit tricky. However, this does not refer to the actual question of what to wear, as it is better to be a little overdressed rather than the other way around, and what starts as an informal afternoon could lead into a more formal event. Far more the question of what to wear refers to being prepared for very high temperatures outside as well as for cooler temperatures inside the buildings due to air conditioning. In this case, the classic layered-look is advisable. Smart casual is a good choice for business dinners, Formal attire at the beginning of an interaction shows your appreciation of your counterpart, and once you have started you can easily agree on losing your ties and eventually even your jackets.
Humour is widely appreciated in India. However, do not bore your audience with long-winded jokes. It is more about smiling, showing interest in your environment, and being polite and friendly in order to create and maintain a harmonious atmosphere.