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Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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Top tips for doing business in China

Published 17 September 2012 06:10, Updated 18 September 2012 06:06

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Top tips for doing business in China

Sustaining any relationship in business takes time and commitment. But if you don’t hold your business cards the right way, you’re unlikely to even make it a possibility. Photo: AP

First business meetings are like dates. They’re crucial. If you muck them up, you won’t get any further.

That’s worth bearing in mind for the 600 delegates on Australia’s largest-ever trade mission to China this week. They’re about to meet a whole lot of people in a very short period of time. That’s basically a week of Australian-Chinese speed-dating.

But where should first dates lead? What sort of relationship should someone seeking to do business in Asia aspire to? Former diplomat and legal expert on trade and investment John Denton is clear.

“Ultimately, the test of a relationship is: would they be prepared to invite you to their daughter’s wedding?” Denton says. “You actually have to spend some time. Are you genuinely interested in their country, or do you simply see it as a transaction?”

That takes time. But for the China first-timers on this week’s Victorian state Super Trade Mission to China, here are five tips to getting started.

1. PREPARE YOUR PITCH PROPERLY

Your counterpart is likely to give you a beautifully presented bilingual document detailing their company, city or industry. This indicates what they are expecting from you. The worst you can do is offer shoddy documentation with no Chinese translation, says Sydney-based consultant David Thomas.

2. GIVE OUT YOUR BUSINESS CARDS PROPERLY. RECEIVE THEM EQUALLY SERIOUSLY

Hand over cards with two hands. Receive them the same way. Hold onto the card while you speak, or put it down on the table in front of you. Don’t stick it in a pocket.

3. TALK LITTLE AND LISTEN A LOT

Western business people often start pitching themselves or their products without knowing sufficiently what the other side wants.

“In China, this can come across as arrogant, discourteous and even rude and, whilst it may not be apparent at the time, its likely to cut things off before they’ve even got started!” Thomas says.

4. USE A PROFESSIONAL TRANSLATOR

If you have a good service or product, make sure you invest in a professional interpreter, who has time to become familiar with your industry and terminology. Otherwise, your pitch will fall flat.

“If you can’t afford to take someone on your side [when you go to China], look through someone for referrals,” says Kate Ritchie, the owner of Melbourne translation agency Chin Communications.

5. USE A PROFESSIONAL TRANSLATOR WHO UNDERSTANDS THE CONTEXT OF YOUR ROLE AND YOUR BUSINESS

Not all English is the same. If something is “tabled” in Australian English, it is included for discussion. If it’s “tabled” in American English, it’s left aside or postponed.

“People in China are familiar with American situations, but not the Australian,“ Ritchie says. “With terms like vice-chancellor, they think vice-chancellor is the deputy and direct attention to somebody else who has a senior-sounding title. That causes a lot of grief. An honours degree – people think it’s an honorary degree.”

None of these tips guarantee you the end goal of a wedding invitation – or business. But they’re important first steps. A long-term relationship ultimately requires people to invest part of themselves in it – something that not everyone can do.

Seven years ago, Denton, who heads commercial law firm Corr Chambers Westgarth, was preparing a project in India. He told me about a conversation he had with the partners in his firm.

“You must make one promise to me before you get involved,” he told them. “You’ve got to promise that you’ll never be superficial. You’ll actually seek to understand what drives India, what the challenges are. Because where we play is actually at the most senior levels and you’ve got to be able to bring value to those discussions.”

Did they all get that? I ask.

“No. they didn’t. And so there were not as many involved in the end as might have been.”

Sustaining any relationship in business takes time and commitment. But if you don’t hold your business cards the right way, you’re unlikely to even make it a possibility.

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