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Keys to doing business with India

Over a period of eight years, I’ve worked in India in various multinational companies. I’ve had the opportunity to experience Work-Life-Balance of normal working class people, both in India and in Germany.  I believe that success in business ultimately boils down to understanding different cultures beyond the surface.  Doing business with different cultures can be difficult especially if you look at it in the light of your own culture.

Building a good, business friendly relationship with your Indian colleagues is one of the keys to successful business.  Indians are more relationship oriented than task oriented and tasks are completed faster, if you have the right contacts.  In this post, we’ll look at some important cultural differences.

The time factor

Being punctual is extremely important in certain cultures where “time is money”. Business in India is often relaxed; you always have time to listen to people, make time for unforeseen situations and work long hours. It is key to understand the importance time is given as it directly affects how we meet deadlines, start and end work, schedule appointments, etc.

How can you handle this cultural difference?

  • Set expectations: Always set clear deadlines – not imposed, but agreed upon by both parties.
  • Buffer time: Always have some extra time planned in case something goes wrong. Schedule a realistic deadline.
  • Follow up: Set up a meeting to get a regular update about the project. If the deadline is five days away, you may want to follow up on day three. However, if the time period is long, you may want to set up multiple meetings spread out evenly and realistically.

Saying no is a big NO

While some cultures can say “no” without much hesitation, Indian cultures find it extremely difficult to do so.

Are you looking for cultural insights?

Read the other articles in our Intercultural series:

Do you have specific questions about how to deal with international colleagues or partners? Or, have you gained cultural insights through your work in different countries? Let us know!

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“No” is considered to be negative, blunt and rude. “No” means not even trying. “No” could also mean showing incapability. Very often these cultures try to sound optimistic by saying “yes” or “I’ll try” even if they are certain the answer is a “no”. Building a friendly business relationship and trust will encourage your Indian colleagues to say “no” when needed. Assure them that a “no” is really appreciated instead of a “yes” or “I’ll try” when actually the answer is ”no”. Encourage them with examples of your own when you had to say no and things turned out better as a result. This is a BIG cultural difference, bigger than you think. It will take time, but once it works, doing business will be a lot easier.

Be sensitive about the situation

Society as a collective plays a very big role in India. “We” works a lot better than “you” or “I”. People’s opinions are more important than what an individual thinks about himself. Mistakes, big or small, are seen as failure. This doesn´t mean that if you notice a mistake, you let it go or don’t breathe a word about it. It just means that you have to be sensitive while pointing out mistakes.

  • Don’t use: “You made this mistake last time.”
  • Use: “The mistake was made last time.”

Don’t focus on what’s wrong, focus on how you can correct it.

  For example

“Anup, if you remember we spoke about this software issue last time. We noticed the software wasn’t working as expected because of XYZ. We should eliminate this problem so it doesn’t happen again. Could you please make a note of it? You will be in charge of this issue, ok?”

 Vocalize appreciation

Indian culture needs to be told verbally “everything is ok/good.”  Show people you notice good work and appreciate it. Certain cultures need more motivation than others. Just a simple, “good job” or “well done” can make a big difference. Say it like you mean it. Remember your tone says more than your words.

 More tips on doing business with India

  • When you meet an Indian business partner or colleague in person, the men are usually comfortable shaking hands but some Indian women may just say hello with a nod and a smile.
  • Food is extremely important for Indians. If they are invited out to a business lunch, food similar to Indian food will be greatly appreciated; however Indians are very polite and will not complain or voice their preferences. It is also important to keep religion in mind when ordering meat. Some Indians are vegetarians and some avoid beef and pork for religious reasons.
  • If alcohol is offered in a business celebration/outing, the women usually won’t drink. The men might. Drinking alcohol isn’t very common in India, especially with people older than you or in higher positions in your company hierarchy.
2 replies
  1. Jennie Wright
    Jennie Wright says:

    Yes, I completely agree James – great insights. Vocalizing appreciation is absolutely essential and many people don’t really get that. Without it, you can have teams that just don’t mesh well together or seem a little tense and this is sometimes why. Great post – I’m going to share it with my colleagues.

  2. James Culver
    James Culver says:

    Great insights Romina! Many cultures have problems with direct “No” including British culture from what I’ve learned. Giving others space to save face and say no can be very important. Your point of negotiating a deadline that will work is very important also and a great way to avoid disappointment with Americans too. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Intercultural research supports your lessons learned as well.

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