ECA News

18 essential tips for doing business with India

Liam Dilley - Tuesday, June 09, 2015

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.

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.

1. Don’t assume things are westernised

Visitors to China are visually reminded all day that they are in a vastly different culture. But often India can appear quite westernised and individuals also give that impression. You might be lulled into a false sense that business there is done much the same way as home. Better to open your mind and see things and people more clearly, looking beyond the surface level “westernisation”.

2. If you want it in a week, it will take a month

What takes a week in your home country will surely 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.

3. You are not that important

Even if you represent a top 100 company, you are not that important to Indians. The rest of the world is chasing them too, so they have choices.

4. 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.

5. Choosing Delhi for HQ makes sense

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.

6. Expect to travel a lot

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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. There is still a language barrier

Your Indian counterpart almost certainly speaks English, which creates the illusion of communication and understanding. We speak English and think western – your Indian partner speaks English and thinks Indian, so take care to build real understanding.

12. 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.

13. 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…

14. 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.

15. 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.

16. 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. One visitor 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.

17. 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.

18. 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.

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
Director, Manallack Pty Ltd
Public Relations & India Business Advisors
Author Soft Skills for a Flat World (Tata McGraw-Hill Dec 2012)

SKYPE ID stephen.manall


Become A Member

Do you require an EMDG consultant to assist with your EMDG export grant application