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Cameron Gordon reveals the keys to successful business communication in Asian markets – and it’s not all about email!

With the new business year fresh upon us, it’s the perfect opportunity to reinforce the positive habits and practices that are fundamental to successful business.
It has long been touted that the art of communication is the key to success. It’s basic common sense, yet it’s astounding how often this sophisticated business tool is sidelined in the haste of approaching deadlines, price wars and aggressive grabs for market share.
In my experience, when it comes to the success of launching new brands in Asian markets with offshore partners, effective communication with stakeholders is one of the key variables.
It’s also very clear that business communication norms in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong or Taiwan differ significantly to the way people communicate in New Zealand.
From a practical perspective, perhaps the most obvious example is the modes of communication used by business people across Asia.
Although most Asian countries are well connected in terms of Internet services delivery and roaming data packages are cheap and generous, I’ve found that very few of our Asian customers would regard email as their preferred mode of communication.
Our customers in Asia have no qualms about using inexpensive communication tools such as Skype, Viber or What’s App. These tools are tried and tested communication modes and because they have become so widely used can present less ‘user error’ challenges than more expensive VOIP solutions.
Surprisingly, in countries where telephone calls will often drop off, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, text messaging is a perfectly acceptable business communication tool.
I often talk to Western business people who say, “I have been sending my customer emails every other day for weeks and had no reply. I just want an update!”
Different time zones, poor phone connections and language differences are common excuses for not picking up the phone.
Because of the five to six hour time differences between New Zealand and Asian markets, and the fact that most people often choose to communicate with suppliers in the afternoon after tending to urgent tasks in the morning, sending an email, rather than getting on the phone, becomes the easier option for New Zealanders.
Easy, but usually not very effective.
If you want answers or need to push your project forward, short of a meeting, a call is the best means of achieving this. Regular calls with your customers also allow you to develop a good rapport, paving the way for a strong and lasting partnership.
From a pragmatic point of view, if you send an email you are one of 100 individual emails sitting in someone’s email box full of urgent tasks. By picking up the phone you have your customer’s one-to-one attention.
In New Zealand we expect regular progress updates on the status of projects, even when there is nothing new to report. On the contrary, in the Southeast Asian markets I work in, I usually find that if there is nothing to report, then it seems there is no need to send an email to say as much. For this reason, you may find you get a much better outcome by quickly calling your customer rather than waiting for that email that may never come.
One area where email is necessary, however, is in the dissemination of product and pricing information. My experience has taught me that we are most successful with this when we send only critical information and keep web links and attachments to a minimum.

Negotiating terms of agreement
One of the most testing times for any exporter is when negotiating the terms of agreement with a new offshore partner. When exporting food and beverage products to Asia there are many upfront conversations required about pricing, market entry costs, advertising and promotion allowances and product registration. This process can be particularly testing as the relationship has not had time to develop and trust is yet to be established.
In circumstances such as these, it is easy to look at the business purely from a selfish point of view. It’s natural to want to maximise the upside, while protecting the downside.
Recently one of our client retail brands partnered with a very capable Malaysian importer. From the get-go this importer did everything they could to get the exporter to take on all the risk for market entry costs, marketing and promotional costs and product returns.
At the beginning all parties were at loggerheads to protect their position. Realising the futility of the situation, we agreed to meet in Kuala Lumpur to listen to each other’s concerns. This meeting was then followed up with several Skype calls until we were all comfortable with the terms of the agreement. Through ongoing dialog and the building of trust, we were able to find a way forward that all parties were happy with.
With the speed of business today, we need to be smart about the way that we communicate with our partners and potential customers. If you simply communicate in the same convenient ways as every other exporter, then you’ll achieve the same mediocre results.
Building trust with business partners is key to developing win-win partnerships that will succeed over time.
Take the time to meet and talk with your partner. Really listen to them. Once you have made them feel confident that their needs are understood, they’ll be ready to reciprocate by listening to you.

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