I’m just back from a trip to China that covered presentations in Shanghai, Beijing, Kunshan and Suzhou. Well, that’s normal, but on this trip we had the opportunity to take clients with us, clients who had never been to a China business meeting before. Here are a few observations for your “first time” in a serious China business meeting.
- Decompress & Adapt: Make sure that you leave enough time between your arrival and your meeting to decompress and adapt. No, I don’t mean take enough time to get over jet lag (and plunging in the very first day is always the best tonic – forget that “transition day” stuff) but prepare and be composed. I’ve seen folks on a first trip get off a 28 hour flight, have a big dinner and walk right into a meeting at 8:00 AM the next day but I’ve never seen that policy have good outcomes unless you’ve been at this game for a long time.
- Translate All Documents: Be sure that all critical written documents are in both English and Chinese done by a skilled professional interpreter. Yes, there will be translators at the meeting and yes the people in China often have surprisingly good English skills (and remember that when you are yakking away in English assuming that they don’t understand) but later, when the documents are passed on to others for further review, you won’t be there to note the subtle details so be sure that all of that is covered in the initial bi-lingual package.
- Hire a Professional Interpreter: Unless your team leader is fluent and bi-lingual, have a professional interpreter there who has the technical capacity to handle any aspect of the conversation. Often, multi-national teams will have a junior member with some Chinese language skill or who may actually be native Chinese. It is, in my opinion, a mistake to allow this person to become the de facto interpreter. Why? First, he or she has a functional role to play (whether finance, technical or otherwise), this has content responsibility and thus they will not always be thinking of the entire meeting flow and communications. More critically, unless they are a professional interpreter the impulse is to talk, talk, talk and not pause frequently for explanation, thus giving the non-Chinese-speaking side a very fragmented and summary view of the comments and conversation. If such a person is very junior, they might not even realize critical aspects of the deal.
- Lead Person: Have one lead person who will control the flow, tempo and direction of the meeting -that person need not be the most senior member of the team. All too often things can deteriorate into numerous side conversations about non-critical matters and derail the main thrust of the meeting. A mutually agreed team meeting leader can monitor and control the flow of the conversation to be sure that things stay on track and in focus.
- Don’t Jump to Conclusions: Finally, resist the impulse to jump to early conclusions. Often the team sitting in stony silence on the other side is merely being respectful and serious — not giving typical facial signals of approval is often common early on in meetings in China. On the other hand, a seemingly fast enthusiastic response doesn’t always mean a deal is about to be closed quickly, so stay patient and professional all the way to the end.
- The Meeting’s Not Over!: Last tip… whether a long elegant lunch or a fabulous dinner, by all means enjoy the wonderful meal that often follows an important meeting, however, remember that when at the table, you are still in the meeting!