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By Jon Michail | Business First Magazine

Protocols are paramount when conducting business with Asian partners. Jon Michail offers his tips to making the best of your Asian business experience.

The top 4 Asian business tips

(i) Learn & Understand the Culture: “When in Rome (do) learn what the Romans do.” Face is everything – experience tells us that ‘face’ in terms of dignity, prestige, honour, respect and status is paramount. While Westerners often make at their own expense or at other expense, until you know your counterparts well,  humour directed towards them will cause them to lose  face and if they lose face you will lose business.

(ii) Why age wins: Age represents wisdom, experience, rank and seniority (men and women). Be careful including too many younger team members, especially if the client is of a mature vintage.

(iii) Social interaction & breaking ‘bread’: Prepare to eat and drink as part of the ritual, it’s regarded as the way to build deeper relationships. The Japanese call this ‘nominication, which means ‘drinking communication’ and in order to build any kind of meaningful business relationship with your associates, you must go out for dinner and drinks….. “sometimes to the early hours. This may be followed by a karaoke session.

(iv) Paying the Bill: In Asia, it’s usual that that the host will be the boss, the head of the table, the eldest (or perhaps someone who is all three) who pays the bill. It’s considered an honour for him/her to do so, so insisting on taking the bill can be considered quite rude. Allow your host to pick up the tab and thank them graciously for it.

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One of the biggest questions that rises when businesses look to expand, particularly within the Asian region, is how to maximise or best leverage the opportunities that present themselves. There are several ways to look at opportunities, but first you have to do a little research. The first element of expansion that you should examine is territory.


Research and explore which countries offer the best opportunities for the most satisfying potential return on investment: long and short term. Remember the ground you make with regard to territory by this company and size, resources, connections, experiences in target market, cultural understanding and affinity etc.

Other questions that you should ask yourself before deciding on territorial expansion are: what service/product will I import or export? Will I manufacture or purchase and distribute? Is it required? Will it need to be adapted for Asian market (exports or distribution)? Am I ready to export my product/service to other regions (USA, Europe)? Is the product/service already exported to other regions?


The second thing you should do is evaluate the risk associated with territorial expansion. There are variable factors that will affect whether your product is a success or not. Your clients are paramount to your success, you need to build and maintain strong relation-ships. And this extends beyond your client to the industry you are in as well. It may be worth considering a joint venture, especially if certain political, economic or infrastructure parameters are in play. Other things to be aware of are corruption within certain partners’ operations as well as governments and bureaucracies, inflation and the value of the dollar.

The following are ways to mitigate the risks:

  • Have a team on the ground to report– this may include people from HQ or local staff employed by HQ.
  • Create clear expectations of what is required of all, your team, your clients etc.
  • Set up systems – People reporting including a ‘pulse’ on how the relationship(s) is going.
  • Ask for help from seasoned Asia entrepreneurs. They will add value to your business, ask them to be ‘real world’ with you as without straight talk the risks are too much to bear and will only be obvious when you are already in too deep. Start on the right footing.

Your SWOT on the region should include:

  1. Economic dynamics
  2. Infrastructure
  3. Ease of doing business
  4. Domestic political risks
  5. Social instability risks
  6. External political risks
  7. Systemic risks


Identify the right people to place and engage with the client, this means flying out with your team to meet the client. You must research the client (preferably prior to flying out) to make sure they have the power to make decisions. Billionaire & Chairman of Crown Resorts Jamie Packer recently said “Our success in China would not have occurred without our partners.” It is paramount that you understand cultural protocols and etiquette, but mostly the way your client thinks. Check out contemporary culture in each country for clues.

Culture works two ways: yours and theirs. Ask yourself whether your company has the existing traits to succeed overseas. Those companies that are able to maximise their opportunities in Asia share the following traits:

  • Established in home markets
  • Good product or service
  • Good reputation in home market – Brand recognition
  • Well-resourced including financially
  • Well connected
  • Appreciate different cultures – speaking the language is a bonus
  • Professional to the point of conservative.
  • Patient and very good listeners – Good negotiation skills
  • Frequent visitors to the region – Relationship focused
  • Understand that process is a necessary part to results – no such thing as an overnight miracle; time is regarded as your friend.

“Identify the right people to place and engage with the client, this means flying out with your team to meet the client.”

Create a position of power

Once you have conducted a market discovery, remembering that the Chinese are different to the Japanese or Indonesians, it is time to put your power play into action. How will you position yourselves above Western competitors? There are certain factors that you must adhere to.

Listen, listen and listen – silence is golden in Asian culture. For you and the client. It is a sign of politeness and contemplation. Westerners tend to talk too much and have a reputation for doing so. Be polite and always listen and you will gain trust and respect.

Remember that ‘Yes’ does not always mean ‘Yes’. It’s not common to hear ‘no’ to anything. Business culture in Asia is nowhere near as direct as it is in the West. It’s important to give the people you are (or hoping to do) business with, a way out. If you ask them for a yes or no answer, you will hardly ever receive a no. But if you receive silence, a hesitation, or sometimes even a yes, the answer can often be no.

Once you have landed in the territory, get yourself introduced by the right people to the right people; you are better to have no introduction than the wrong introduction. Focus on building the relationship, without a strong relationship contracts will not come.

The best way to go about your territorial expansion is to seek advice from people that have been there before you. However, seek the right advice. Experience tells me that the advice you require as an entrepreneur is at times strikingly different to what a multinational may require.

Be street smart in your approach, forget about the politically correct advice that is so common today, ask the tough questions from people you trust and respect and have the runs on the board – explain to them that’s how you would like to be treated. In my experience this approach works best.

If you follow these rules you will set yourself up to have a successful crack at doing business in any of the Asian territories.

© 2014 Business First Magazine | This article first appeared on Business First Magazine in July 2014.

Jon Michail is Group CEO of Image Group International, Australasia’s No 1 image coach. Image Group International supports executives, entrepreneurs and their organisations to become iconic and monetised leadership brands.

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