20 essential tips for doing business with India

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Stephen Manallack compiled the secrets of Indian business success and cross-cultural issues while preparing his new book for the Indian market, Soft Skills for a Flat World (Tata McGraw-Hill). He has led several trade missions to India and is a cross-cultural trainer.

Almost every enterprise in Australia should be looking at collaboration and business links with India – but it is not easy, requires patience and a lot of understanding. Even NRIs can find the landscape different. Here are some tips that might help your experience:

There is still a language barrier

Your Indian counterpart almost certainly speaks English, which creates the illusion of communication and understanding. Many of us speak English and think western – your Indian partner speaks English and thinks Indian, so take care to build real understanding. Also keep in mind there are “many Indias” with many different ways of thinking.

You are in a different culture

Visitors to most of Asia and China are visually reminded all day that they are in a vastly different culture. But often, especially in offices, India can appear quite westernised and individuals also give that impression. Better to open your mind and see things and people more clearly, looking beyond the surface level “westernisation”.

Prepare for the collective

Most westerners come from a culture of the individual, but the Indians they meet are firmly placed in a collective culture. Most NRIs in Australia have adapted to the individualist way of doing business here. A visitor to an Indian company will often find four or five Indians in the meeting, and often it is not clear who is in charge.Many Indian leaders will not speak up or even at all in these meetings – in the collective someone else does the talking while they do the evaluating.

It will take longer – except when it doesn’t

Forget delivery times in the west– it could take four times as long in India, despite the assurances of delivery. This means to succeed there you need incredible patience, so don’t send your least patient executive to India. On the other hand, sometimes things happen quickly…and the west could learn from this.

You are just one of many

The world is knocking on India’s door. Even if you represent a major company, you are not that important to Indians. The rest of the world is chasing them too, so they have choices.

Be prepared for paradox

The visitor can be shocked and unprepared for the speed of modern India. Businesses need to go prepared to deliver on a product or service right now, not just having some idea for a future opportunity. Trade missions from around the world arrive weekly, so they have plenty of choice. Fast and slow, east and west – India is a living paradox.

Watch out for religious holidays

Check the calendar for holidays and although they are often fun it is a hard time to do business. A holiday listed for one day might run for four, so check it out first.

Work harder for specific outcomes

Indians have acceptance of change hardwired into their psyche – they thrive on it. It also means they are less specific in plans and contracts, which can be disturbing for newcomers. Getting the specifics set down can take a long time – but be careful about speaking too bluntly because this can be seen as insulting in a culture of relativity and relationship.

Be careful choosing location for HQ

While Mumbai is the financial capital, it is a tough place and most business people find they have to visit Delhi regularly anyway. It is more liveable, and is more than a political capital – it is a powerful business city. Or, base yourself where the business opportunities are. Perhaps your best market is in the south? In that case, Chennai becomes a great choice.

Be prepared for many internal flights

You can be an executive in London, New York or Melbourne, and not have to travel too much. But wherever you are based in India, expect to travel, because there are at least 35 cities where you can do business, and that’s just the beginning.

Start and end the day late

Indian breakfast meetings can be set for 10am or even later – they are late starters. But your dinner meeting at the end of the day might not start until 9pm or later. Hours are long and weekends are for working because “work is life” is the mantra.

Things will change at the last minute

Despite your expectation, India runs to its own rhythm. One westerner tried to break convention by running an early (6.30pm) dinner meeting, and his guests showed up at 9.30pm anyway. Often you will be called minutes before a meeting to change time or venue – going with the flow is an asset over there.

Expect to be interrupted

Indians like to do several things at once, so expect your presentations to be interrupted by other visitors, cell phones, papers to sign and other distractions. At formal conferences and lunches, cell phones are rarely switched off and often answered at full voice.

Be more formal

Addressing people by a title and their last name is a good policy in a country where status and formality underpin good manners. Casual forms of address can come later, but only once you have really got to know the Indian partner very well. On the other hand, things are changing so fast in India…

Shaking hands with women

Conventional wisdom is no physical contact whatsoever in a business context, but few people over there seem to really worry. A good policy is to wait and see if the woman extends her hand, but if you hold your hand out first it is not such a big deal.

Don’t read anything into the handshake

In the west we tend to read a lot into handshakes – too soft, too firm, too long and so on. Most of your handshakes in India will be pretty limp by western standards, but it is not a sign of lack of interest or indifference. It’s just how it is done over there, almost like a formality to get over and done with.

Navigate through the spider web

While the west strives for simplicity and certainty, Indian business leaders know that life is like trying to find your way through a spider web – where does it begin, where does it lead, who can tell? Consistent with this view, most Indian corporations offer an incredibly diverse range of products and services – whereas western business tends to focus on just one area.

Dealing with non-conformity

Indian culture provides masses of room for non-conformists. Diversity of dress, styles of doing business and differing reactions to personal contact are to be expected over there. Your host might want to talk about diet or spirituality instead of your product and it is wise (and fun) to go with the flow.

Avoid stereotyping

India might be the most diverse country on earth. Religions, beliefs, languages and culture all immensely varied. Keeping an open mind will help you avoid jumping to the wrong conclusions. Your host could have spent many years in the USA or the UK, and have a global outlook – or never have left India and have a regional view.

Learn the art of flexibility and patience

Being patient and flexible is an asset, even if you come from a country that likes to be blunt, direct and structured. India is full of surprises and you cope best through being flexible. Dropping any “one rule for all” approaches is a good start.

If you are thinking of going, India’s great thinker Rabindranath Tagore can be your inspiration: “You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.”

Stephen Manallack is a published author and speaker in India. His new book is Soft Skills for a Flat World (Tata McGraw-Hill). EMAIL stephen@manallack.com.au

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