Chinese Business Etiquette: What Americans Can Learn

China has 1.3 billion citizens with approximately 300 million representing the middle class. Compare this with the US total population of 300 million. Chinese firms represent a huge opportunity for some businesses, if they are willing to step out and present their offerings. But not all Chinese business is conducted in China; there are plenty of Chinese firms that are established here in the US. In fact, this year in 2012, the Chinese have set a record for US acquisitions.

So, short of learning Mandarin, how can Americans have a decent shot at selling to the Chinese? In short, it’s all about respect and trust—not much different from selling to American companies.

Here are some tips for doing business with the Chinese, and how we can, or should, apply these tips while selling to American companies:

Present business cards in English and Chinese, and treat the cards with dignity.

In fact, some present their business cards with both hands. Next time instead of accepting, quickly glancing at, and then tucking it away in your shirt pocket, try looking the card over carefully, smiling, and nodding. Give some credence to the card before storing it away. Note: I only recommend Chinese business cards if the prospect is Chinese. No need for Chinese cards if your prospect is an American firm here in the US.

Give gifts and presents.

Make sure the gifts are wrapped in red, not white. Red means good luck. I must admit that when someone presents me with a business gift, it feels kind of awkward—particularly when wrapped in a big bow; luckily that only happened once, and the chocolate was extraordinary. The common American custom is to provide sports and events tickets; perhaps these can be presented in a small gift bag, with some other goodies included, including red tissue paper that they need to rummage through to access the gift . Or include the tickets in the same wrapping as a small sports token, such as a baseball, or football.

Never embarrass anyone, including yourself.

This brings shame, and causes folks to lose face. Apparently, Steve Jobs wasn’t aware of this one; then again he was an inventor not a sales professional.

Don’t ask any ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions.

It is hard for a lot of Chinese to say no. In contrast, I’ve found that a lot of American managers have a hard time saying ‘yes’. As a sales professional, it is best to ask leading questions that can result in uncovering new information. Forget the old adage that asking a bunch of questions that automatically return ‘yes’ responses will help close the deal. Ask questions that show you have a genuine interest in selling to your prospect.

Don’t touch.

Same goes for those selling to Americans—it’s just plain creepy. Oh, and the chap who gave me friendly elbows to the side of my ribs, to help solidify his stance, was never invited back.

Build personal rapport at the introduction.

Chinese enjoy small talk at the beginning of most meetings, and in fact, it is common to have a meeting where the only item on the agenda addresses personal topics. Building long-term trust is important. While Americans may not care to admit it, schmoozing is a part of the game—play it to win.

Have Patience.

Allow time for the relationship to develop, and be prepared for multiple visits. This is also true here in the US. However, a lot of firms seem to hire their salespeople as a “stepping stone” position, where they may be in the field for a few years before being promoted to a marketing or management position. Career salespeople, like myself, enjoy being in the field and developing relationships. Sometimes, for long-term success, it makes sense to have one salesperson handle an account, or prospect for several years. This allows the long-term relationship to build trust and develop properly; when a new sales representative shows up, often times the trust and relationship may be jeopardized, and at best is taken a step backwards.

Of course, in the end, price, quality, and service still account for most sales deals. The tips above, while they may not apply to every prospect, can give you a decent shot at winning some new opportunities, not just with the Chinese prospects, but with American prospects as well.

Chinese Business Etiquette Tips

  1. Present business cards in English and Chinese
  2. Give wrapped gifts
  3. Never embarrass
  4. Don’t ever become loud
  5. Present slowly
  6. Avoid ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions
  7. Don’t touch
  8. Cues don’t exist—forget trying to gauge body language
  9. Don’t point with index finger
  10. Be prompt
  11. Do favors
  12. Engage in small talk; build rapport
  13. Have patience
  14. Respect everyone, particularly older folks
  15. Learn a few words in Chinese (i.e. Ni Hao = Hello)
  16. Develop the long-term relationship


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