Working with Other Cultures: How to Do Business in India [guest post]

Eze pinged me few weeks back saying he’s going to visit India. I wished him good luck knowing he’s going to have a great time there. India is a great place to visit and also a great place (although highly challenging) for doing business. The key, though, is to know how.

Business in India 2011

  • Few facts: it is believed that the Indian art of trading goes all the way back to 2800 BC. Since then, a lot have happened. India today is a vibrant global business center. India is the 4th strongest economy in the world with a GDP of US$3,560,000 trillion, total exports of US$176BL and total imports of US$287BL. The top 3 Indian billionaires, Mukesh Ambani , Lakshmi Mittal and Anil Ambani are listed in the world’s richest men list. Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IMA) is the top Indian business school ranked 2nd in Asia and 8th in the world. Prof. Nitin Nohria became this year the first Indian to become the Dean of Harvard business school. Alright, enough said. I think we’ve established the fact that these guys know their gig when it comes to doing business. Here are few pointers to ease your way when starting to do business in India:
  • Language: Different states within India use different formal languages. The central government formal language is Hindi, and the formal language for doing business there is English. You will notice that during meetings, sometimes, your Indian counterparts will switch to Hindi. I saw that happening dozens of times. Don’t get offended. Relax, sit back and have a glass of cold water. Let them sort out the issues between themselves. This will only do well to the process.
  • Hierarchy: Due to Hinduism and the social classes system in India, that defines a social class and destination for every person, hierarchy is key element in Indian organizational culture. Here’s an example – I attended a meeting that got delayed by 30 minutes, since no one of the executives I have met there was willing to bring over and connect a video projector, as this is a task of a common worker – a runner. I used that time for small talk, which is important by itself, while waiting for the runner.
  • Meetings and initial contact: At the beginning and at the end of a meeting, shake hands with the people you meet (start with the most senior person). Sometimes you will be greeted with “Namaste” so, show respect and return a gesture. Exchange business cards with your right hand, or both hands, and remember to treat business cards with respect (keep it on the table and don’t shove it to your pocket). I have seen meetings turning sour because of that.
  • Building relationships: Particularly in India, good relationship with the people you do business with goes a long way. The Indians will not automatically go for the most cost effective proposal, as many in the west think (or the most superior technology). Only good relationships will get you to close deals, as the Indians will deal only with people they know and trust. Building rapport is a key element in doing business there – invest time doing it. Use your interpersonal skills and be sharp about your technology to build good business relationships
  • Negotiating: Wow, this can be a long one. The Indians are masters in negotiating. Never underestimate the people sitting in front of you. The negotiations skills you need when negotiating with Indian businessmen is a subject for a different blog post, but here are few general pointers:
    • Schedule your meetings by email but ensure to confirm over the phone. Avoid negotiation meetings around public holidays (Independence day, Diwalli, Eid etc.) Keep in mind the hot season (I mean hot!) between March & October.
    • Being up to 15 minutes late is not an issue, but (take traffic into account and) get to the meeting on time. Ensure to allow extra time, when booking your business trip, for last minute changes in meeting schedule – it will happen.
    • Start the meeting with small talk and don’t jump right into business (If you’re knowledgeable about Cricket you’re lucky. If not, start learning the subject, not kidding, you might even enjoy it. Bollywood and current affairs are also good for small talk). Avoid talking about personal issues and moreover avoid talking about the poverty there and the street baggers. Let your Indian counterparts get to know you and try to learn about them at the same time.
    • The Indian way of negotiating does not take time into consideration. You are about to find out that time is running very slow and at times it even stands still during the negotiations. Have patience. Let me just repeat that – Have patience. Anything you know about negotiation stages, timing and milestones is no longer relevant. Actually, I use this in my favor. I take the time to build the trust and rapport even further, and make sure I eliminate any cognitive dissonance they might have about the deal.
    • If you feel that the trust is not established yet, do not make the usual mistake and start a price reduction festival. Make sure you take the time to further build the trust. Earn respect.
    • The decisions in Indian corporates are made by the executive management and by them only. If you don’t have a senior executive in the room, you are farther away from closing the deal than what you would think.
    • Be courteous. What your Indian counterparts think of you as a person is much more important than what they think of your offering, business model or your pricing. Always mind your manners and show respect. Never, but never, and I repeat again, never show frustration or anger. Do not be blunt. If you want to express criticism use the diplomat within you. Do it gently and politely, or kiss the deal goodbye.
    • The Indian culture consider a direct “No” as offensive and humiliating. When they want to say “No” they will say “let me check”, “I will try my best” or a simple “maybe”. When you hear it, it means “No”.
    • When you close the deal, show courtesy and invite your Indian counterparts to dinner. Remember to check what their culinary preferences are as many people in India are vegetarians and don’t drink alcohol.

India has a long history of trading and the art of doing business. The businessmanship, if you will, its rules, ethics and negotiation methodologies, were carved and structured over decades, even centuries, of doing business – internally and externally. Doing business in India is about breaking the code. Once done, things start to get smoother. Just remember – personal relationship, respect and patience.

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Face picture of Ben Gilad

Ben Gilad is the Managing Director of Metis Asia. He has over 12 years of experience in doing business with Asia and India with emphasis on the telecom software and solutions markets. Business oriented professional with an abiding belief that solution providers exist because of the organizations and individuals they serve, not the other way around.

Eze Vidra
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Eze Vidra

Chief Innovation Officer at Antidote
Eze is the Chief Innovation Officer at Antidote, a startup helping patients search and match to clinical trial, to accelerate medical breakthroughs. Previously, Ezewas a General Partner at Google Ventures Europe. Before GV, Eze founded and led Campus London, Google's first physical hub for startups, and was the Head Google for Entrepreneurs in Europe. He's an experienced product manager and startup mentor. In 2012 Eze founded Techbikers, a non-for profit supporting children education in developing countries.
Eze Vidra
Follow me

Eze Vidra

Eze is the Chief Innovation Officer at Antidote, a startup helping patients search and match to clinical trial, to accelerate medical breakthroughs. Previously, Eze was a General Partner at Google Ventures Europe. Before GV, Eze founded and led Campus London, Google’s first physical hub for startups, and was the Head Google for Entrepreneurs in Europe. He’s an experienced product manager and startup mentor. In 2012 Eze founded Techbikers, a non-for profit supporting children education in developing countries.