20 essential tips for doing business with India

 

Doing business with India? Enterprises in the west are looking at collaboration and business links with India – but it is not easy, requires patience and a lot of understanding. Even NRI’s can find the landscape different. Here are some tips that might help your experience, but keep in mind you will find many variations and contradictions of these points in the very diverse and exciting India market:

The language barrier is real – even English

India has some 26 major languages, but your Indian counterpart will almost certainly speak English, which itself can be a problem – it 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 languages and 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” – exploring cultural differences expands your horizons and you will find many charming similarities. 

Dealing with surprises

Indian culture provides masses of room for non-conformity, hilarious and stimulating exchanges and lots of surprises. Diversity of dress, styles of doing business and differing reactions to personal contact are to be expected over there. A major CEO or Government Minister might change their schedule just to see you – on less than one day notice. 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, enjoying the surprises of India.

Be patient and you will get there faster

Adopt a patient long term view and for investors India is a 5 to 10 year game. It is very easy to get MOU’s (Memorandum of Understanding) signed with fanfare in India but too many do not produce any outcome. One way to improve our cultural dexterity would be to take a long-term view and apply lots of patience.

Businesses should not start out on market entry unless they are prepared to commit at least five years to making it work. Governments need the same longer-term perspective. Rushed trade missions, political announcements and photo opportunities amount to very little – we see them as an achievement, but they are just a beginning.

Relationships take time – but they are everything

India is a collective culture which means relationships are the number one factor in success, and building relationships takes time. Many who see India as not a short-term transaction opportunity can find success, but not for long as someone with a better price comes along. A better strategy is to aim for longer success through a focus on building relationships. The first trade meeting in India can be exciting and positive, but from the India side this is just seen as an introduction and they will wait to see if the relationship grows. Trust and relationship take time.

“Yes” can mean “maybe” or “no”

See beyond the politeness: Indians are among the most courteous and generous hosts on the planet. On top of this, their culture demands that they never provide an outright rejection or “no” statement, even when this is clearly the only answer. The dumbest question for a business to ask in India is “can you help me with market entry for my products?” The answer will always be “yes” and you will sit idle for a long time back home until you realise this is not the right question. Within Indian culture built so solidly on relationship above all else, the word “no” is a real relationship breaker and is rarely or never used. “Yes” can in fact mean “maybe” or even “no” and you need to look for the signs. Like most of Asia, Indians are indirect communicators.

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.

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.  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 speak at all in these meetings – in the collective someone else does the talking while they do the evaluating.

It will be slow and fast

Modern India can be slow or fast and it is hard to know which you will encounter. Sometimes delivery seems to take forever, yet on other occasions it is faster than the west. This means to succeed there you need incredible patience, so don’t send your least patient executive to India. Being able to respond positively under both slow and fast delivery is the key.

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 and dynamic paradox.

You might find yourself in the queue

The world is knocking on India’s door. Even if you represent a major company, you are not necessarily that important to Indians – the rest of the world is chasing them too, so they have choices. While most western executives are under head office pressure to complete the deal, their Indian counterpart faces no such demand and can walk away in most cases, so be prepared to go that bit extra if you want to create the relationship so necessary to doing business.

Watch out for religious holidays

A simple point often overlooked – check the calendar for holidays and although they are often fun and informing, it can be a hard time to do business. A holiday listed for one day might run for four, so check it out first. But don’t be totally put off by India’s schedule – my own experience has been during both Diwali and Holi in India I was able to get all the appointments I wanted and joined in the celebrations.

holi
The vibrant colours of Indian smiles at Holi

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. And once you have “finalised” the deal, expect a continuing run of re-negotiation (in India things are rarely “set in concrete”) which is consistent with the Indian view of the world and life as constantly changing and vastly unpredictable.

India is many countries in one

Differences are not just seen in the North, South, East and West, India is truly many countries in one and you need to be ready for cultural diversity. While Mumbai is the fast and flashy financial capital, it is also a tough place because everything is done on grand scale and at great speed. New Delhi is more formal and stuffy, also more liveable, and is more than a political capital – it is a powerful business city. Chennai is one of my favourites, embracing that slower southern pace and the values that shine in southern businesses. Regions have varying strengths, so research is the key. Recent moves to allocate Smart Cities across India can provide insights into alternative gateways for you. 

Be prepared for many internal flights

Wherever you are based in India, expect to travel, because there are at least 55 cities of over one million where you can do business, and that’s just the beginning. Plus, the importance of meeting face to face is especially the case in India. Personal and organisational logistics can become overwhelming, so find ways to keep your India developments within control.

Indian airport

Start and end the day late

Indian breakfast meetings can be set for 10am or even later – they are late starters (even though PM Modi has instructed Ministers to be at their desks by 9am). 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. Western focus and single-mindedness is not an asset in India. My experience is that although my Indian host might seem constantly diverted and interrupted during my presentation, not much has been missed as Indians thrive on multiple tasks at the same time, contrasting with the western single project orientation.

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. Australians, driven by egalitarianism, need to be reminded to focus their attention on the most senior (often also elderly) person in the room and avoid in-depth chatting to junior staff. 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. Indians are amazingly flexible in these matters, but it is wise to show care.

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 light 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. You might think about learning how to do the “Namaste” when greeting Hindu colleagues.

namaste

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. In most cases Indian companies are willing to buy from you but are also looking for the deal to include some intellectual property sharing arrangements – think about these before you head over there.

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. Most Indian communication is indirect, so it can take some time to work out what the real issues are. India is full of surprises and you cope best through being flexible. Dropping any “one rule for all” approach is a good start.

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

Tagore

Author: Stephen Manallack

Former President, Australia India Business Council, Victoria and Author, You Can Communicate; Riding the Elephant; Soft Skills for a Flat World (published by Tata McGraw-Hill INDIA); Communicating Your Personal Brand. Director, EastWest Academy Pty Ltd and Trainer/Speaker/Mentor in Leadership, Communication and Cross Cultural Communication. Passionate campaigner for closer western relations with India. Stephen Manallack is a specialist on “Doing Business with India” and advisor/trainer on “Cross-Cultural Understanding”. He is a Director of EastWest Academy Pty Ltd which provides strategic advice and counsel regarding business relations with India. A regular speaker in India on leadership and global communication, his most recent speaking tour included a speech to students of the elite Indian university, Amity University, in Noida. He also spoke at a major Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) global summit, the PR Consultants Association of India in Delhi, the Symbiosis University in Pune and Cross-Cultural Training for Sundaram Business Services in Chennai. He has visited India on business missions on 10 occasions and led three major trade missions there. He provides cross-cultural training – Asia and the west.

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