Almost every enterprise in the West is looking at collaboration and business links with India – but it is not easy, it requires patience and a lot of understanding. Even a non-resident Indian can find the landscape different. Here are some tips that might help your, but keep in mind you will find many variations and contradictions of these points in the very diverse and exciting India market.
1. The language barrier is real
India has some 26 major languages, but your Indian counterpart will almost certainly speak English, which itself is 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 Indians” with many different languages and ways of thinking.
2. You are in a different culture
Visitors to most of Asia and China are visually reminded that they are in a vastly different culture. But often, especially in offices, India can appear quite westernised and individuals also give that impression. It’s better to open your mind and see things and people more clearly, looking beyond the surface level “westernisation”. Exploring cultural differences expands your horizons.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Prepare for the collective
Most westerners come from a culture of the individual, but Indians 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.
6. You need patience
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 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.
7. 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. 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.
8. Be prepared for paradox
Visitors can be shocked and unprepared for the speed of modern India. Businesses need to be prepared to deliver on a product or service immediately and not just have 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.
9. Watch out for religious holidays
A simple point often overlooked – check the calendar for holidays and although they are often fun and informing, it is a hard time to do business. A holiday listed for one day might run for four, so check it out first.
10. Work harder for specific outcomes
Indians have an 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.
11. Be careful choosing where to base your India push
While Mumbai is the financial capital, it is a tough place and most business people find they have to visit Delhi regularly anyway. Delhi is more liveable, and is more than a political capital – it is a powerful business city. Alternatively, you could base yourself where the business opportunities are. Perhaps your best market is in the south? In that case, Chennai becomes a great choice. 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.
12. Be prepared for many internal flights
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. Plus the importance of meeting face to face is especially true in India.
13. 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.
14. 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.
15. 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.
16. 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…
17. 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.
18. 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.
19. 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.
20. 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 can be your inspiration: “You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.”
Stephen Manallack is a Director of the EastWest Academy Pty Ltd and compiled the secrets of Indian business success and cross cultural issues while preparing his 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.