Be well prepared for the first business appointment in a Chinese firm. Arrive punctually and take note of suitable clothing style.
Conservative dress code
Well-known brands emphasize personal status in China, which is of particular relevance in the hierarchically-oriented Chinese business world.
As a man, you should wear a dark suit with a shirt and tie. Women are always correctly dressed in a discreet skirt suit or pantsuit. It is better not to wear a short skirt or a low-cut blouse. With makeup, too, reserve is a must.
Greetings and introductions
In China, greetings are done according to ranks in the hierarchy. So the highest-ranking and eldest members of a group are greeted first. Be aware that in China there is no „ladies first“!
If you do not know who you should greet first, it is best to wait a while: the interpreter or speaker of the Chinese delegation will introduce you to the people present in hierarchical order.
Western hand-shaking has become something adopted by the Chinese too in international business contacts. The Chinese handshake, however, is quite gentle. The idea is to just touch the other person, not to grab or even “get a grip” on him. Do not judge a soft handshake as weakness or uncertainty – and do not press too hard yourself.
Shaking hands is in China a very formal gesture and takes place only at the first meeting – not at further encounters.
In China, business cards are handed over respectfully and accepted with both hands. Give a lot of attention to a business card; for example, ask if you are pronouncing the name of the person and the company correctly. Do not slip a business card into your jacket pocket without looking at it, but carefully put it into a holder.
Chinese names are arranged with the surname first, and the personal name second. Chinese business people who travel frequently internationally have business cards with their name and contact details in both, Chinese characters and Latin letters. So if a card reads “Chen Gang,” it is Mr Chen, whose personal name is “Gang”. Often, Chinese engaged in international business use English personal names, and you can safely switch from calling them “Gang” to “David” or “Tony”.
Frequently, on Chinese business cards, the personal name is in capitals and a Mr. or Miss or Mrs. in brackets after that tells you whether it is a man or a woman.
By the way, as helpful as it is for you to see the names of your Chinese partners translated into a familiar alphabet, it will be greatly appreciated if they can read your business card in Chinese characters!
English as lingua franca
At the first business meeting with Chinese partners, you will presumably speak English. Be aware that in that case everyone is communicating in a foreign language and misunderstandings can frequently crop up. Whatever significance we give to individual words is influenced by our own culture and defined by our native language.
- Be prepared for very different levels of English among your conversation partners.
- Speak slowly, clearly, and in short sentences. Pause when speaking.
- Ask how particular concepts are understood.
- Don’t make judgmental decisions if it seems to you that some explanations are too wordy or too direct and impolite. It is often simply a different way of using language.
Presenting firms and products
When you are presenting your firm and its products, act respectfully, cautiously, but self-confidently. If you have many years of experience, definitely play that up.
The Chinese value a lot of background information: so talk about the history of your firm, its various centres, the most important people, but also about special projects and awards received.
You too should be introduced in detail, preferably by a third person.
In your presentation use modern multimedia elements, such as video sequences. When using printed material pay attention to having an attractive, brightly coloured design and a very good print quality.
All materials should at least be in English, but a Chinese version is highly appreciated! As well, product samples or high-quality photos and films of products are recommended.
Approval or rejection?
Often it is not very easy to recognize whether your Chinese business partners view something positively or not. They avoid a clear “no” because they do not want to endanger a harmonious relationship with harsh words.
Instead, the Chinese use evasive communication. Read between the lines and try to figure out the current opinion by asking many questions.
Building up relationships
In China there is a motto: “The better a friendship, the better the business deals”, so particularly in the initial stages a lot of energy is invested in building up good personal relationships as a basis for business relationships. Joint dinners or free time activities are organized, at which you talk not about business but about private topics such as family or hobbies. The Chinese like to get to know you as human beings.
Gifts are a common way of showing attention, appreciation, and friendship. The important thing is the gesture so that you can send out very positive signals with small acts of attentiveness.
The process of building up a relationship can be very time-consuming in China and in some circumstances also expensive. But the efforts are an absolute must and pay for themselves in the end. Personal relationships are an absolute precondition for success, especially in later negotiations or work on a project.