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Do you Speak Business? - Lessons from India

My experience in India is that success in business partnerships is about accepting the context and speaking the 'cultural language'.



Indian Context - Size is Everything

English is a Problem

Reputation versus Regulation

No Substitute for Time

Should you do Business in India?


The 'New India' is changing - rapidly.

The second largest population in the world, and a young population at that, has never had more interest from foreign investors and companies.

Unlike in China, English is widely spoken across India, so it should be easy to enter, right?

In my 22-year association with India, I have observed and experienced a lot.

The India I first visited is vastly different in some sectors than the one I now call home.

So, here are the lessons I have learned which can be helpful to consider if planning a business foray into India.

Indian Context - Size is Everything

One of the biggest mistakes I have observed with international visitors to India is that they expect India to be something it is not. It is India. It is not the West or any other country.

Perhaps this sounds obvious however, you cannot expect things to look, feel, sound or run the same as in other business environments.

As an OCI who resides in India, I have had to adapt to India - not the other way around.

All business environments have nuances, and India is no different. From my experience, it has been helpful to prepare for a potentially significant shift in mindset.

And perhaps more importantly, an acceptance of what the largest democracy IS.

India IS a country with nearly 1.4 billion people. That's one thousand, four hundred million.

That's 50 times the size of Australia!

The enormous population has ramifications for almost everything in India and is difficult to fathom if you have not experienced this population size before.

You are competing for time and attention - limited time and attention. You may have many more people to compete with to get in front of the right person.

Appointments and meetings can run on time or can be three hours late.

Confirmation of an appointment may not happen until the morning of the proposed meeting, such are the time demands of almost everyone in India.

Each city, business and circumstance are different of course.

There are only so many hours in the day, but potentially hundreds or thousands of interactions a person may be involved during their working hours.

The population impacts how things work. It matters.

Another critical part of the Indian context is the diversity of the country.

There are 22 scheduled languages in India (1) and there are many more in use. Not everyone speaks Hindi. Not everyone speaks English. Languages spoken can be dictated by cultural, regional and individual preferences.

Imagine going to the US or the UK and facing multiple languages! It would certainly change how you understood and prepared for the local environment.

From my experience in India, people are very forgiving of cultural misunderstandings or etiquette breaches. With a number of regional, religious and cultural differences across India, people appear to be tolerant of differences and accept variations in practices.

English is a Problem

English is widely spoken across India and is one of the official government languages, along with Hindi. (1)

And this is a problem.

I have observed the following with some visitors to India: The visitor assumes they are being understood by people in India. Similarly, the visitors believe they understand what people mean when using common English phrasing.

For example, the use of the word "yes" can have vastly different meanings - culturally.

I have found different conclusions can come from the same meeting, conducted in English, with handshakes, smiles and apparent agreement.

A cultural interpreter (who understands both countries) might be a good option for negotiations.

Reputation versus Regulation

One of the biggest lessons someone can take away from India is that reputation is EVERYTHING.

Societal reputation trumps everything and is vital to understand.

It is generally not assumed that you are a good person or a 'safe' person to trust. Trust and reputation need to be earned.

You will be greeted warmly and treated wonderfully, but this is not necessarily an indication that you are accepted.

Reputation is the local way to prove your "validity" and show your trustworthiness.

But as a foreigner, how can you earn this reputation? You may be an "unknown?"

Sometimes you can borrow reputation through an Indian contact if you have one. The local person will be vouching for you.

But it bears repeating; you cannot assume that you will be automatically trusted or accepted.

I admit this was a personally challenging concept for me to adapt to.

Because a person's reputation in India is vital for every facet of their life, they will not take risks or chances in assuming you are to be trusted.

You may have to prove it.

Other countries sometimes have regulatory systems which render reputation a far less important consideration. In some instances, the often Bristish-based laws in India do not hold as much sway as the societal structures.

There is more regulation and consumer protection in India these days. However, due to the size of the population, getting any recourse through legal means may be a very lengthy and costly process.

Therefore your business and personal reputations matter. A lot.

No Substitute for Time

With the size and diversity of the population in India, and with a reputation-based society, sometimes only time will see how successful your relationship is.

Time is money, of course. But wasted time (and assumptions) is also money.

A cultural understanding from both parties in any international partnership is vital.

India is no different.

But India requires you to spend time building trust.

You may think you are 'in,' but the level of trust can takes years and only after wasted efforts on both sides will you learn whether the relationship is real.

When planning to do business in India, it would be wise to factor in a time scale that suits your business goals and the local expectations.

Ignoring the latter could ultimately result in messy and expensive failure.

If something is worth the investment, the time invested will not be in vain.

Should you do Business in India?

The opportunities in India are attractive.

A highly innovative country and relatively young population offer opportunities in the 'new India.'

Some forecast India's middle-class to be 90% of the population in the coming decades. (2)

It's a mind-boggling thought.

Any business decision to expand internationally requires significant planning.

Many a large MNC has tried to enter India and has not succeeded.

Smaller ventures also fall prey to misunderstandings of local culture and environment.

Should you do Business in India? Yes. Should you adapt your mindset and be prepared for the long haul? A big YES.

Let me know your experience doing business in India. Comment below.

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Thank you :)



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