Doing business the Indian way

Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true” – Prof. Joan Robinson, Cambridge

This statement accurately captures the spirit of the subcontinent. India is huge and heterogeneous. Doing business in India can be exciting due to its growing economy and market potential, and at the same time, overwhelming due to its diversity.

The Swiss and Indian approaches to business are markedly different. While the Indian business culture is driven by relationships and comprises a mix of innovative thinking, business minded aggression and ease with numbers, the Swiss culture is process oriented and inclines towards conservatism, rational thinking and adherence to rules. The culture of doing business in India also varies significantly between MNC’s, family owned businesses and startups. This article will touch upon the culture in startups and smaller organizations.

Building a relation with your Indian counterparts can go much smoother if you are aware of the cultural nuances. Below are a few suggestions to help you maximize your business trip to India –

Approach to punctuality

The degree of uncertainty in the Indian and Swiss business environment varies quite a lot. While it is possible in Switzerland to predict the punctuality of public transport, and the time taken to walk, the travel for a business meeting can be comparatively hostile and unpredictable in India, especially in the big metro cities such as Bangalore, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and New Delhi. For striking an amicable conversation with Indian business counterparts, it is advisable to allow for some delay in their arrival for a meeting. When you approach their premises, however, aim for Swiss punctuality and also make time for security check at the building entrance if you are visiting big multinationals’ office. The European approach to focus on the individual versus the Indian subcontinents’ approach to focus on the family and at large, the community and relations, also plays a role in the differences in everyday schedule and hence the business schedule. Indians are polychromic and expect flexibility in business as well.

Preparing for a business meeting

English is the official language and email the preferred mode of communication in India. Formal titles are important in initial communications (Dr., Prof., Sir, Madam), which may be relaxed to first names at latter stages of communication.

When arranging face-to-face meetings, dress conservatively or in business casuals (men and women). While the Swiss are always on time for meetings, you will have to be prepared to accommodate last minute delays on the part of your Indian colleagues.

Indian organizations are normally hierarchical. Address the senior most person first. Small talk at the beginning of a meet is common, including questions about your hobbies or family. Do not be surprised if you are asked questions that may appear personal and private to you. The Swiss tend to be private about discussing their personal life, whereas Indians see it as a way to build relationships. So, while the Swiss treat information as private, the Indian culture treats intimacy as private. Indians may offer a handshake or a Namaste (a form of greeting with palms pressed together, fingers pointing upwards). Indian women may or may not shake the hands of male visitors. It’s best to follow their lead. (The Swiss custom of a hug and three kisses may not be appreciated in India, especially with female colleagues).

Indians may or may not hand over business cards at a meeting. With the shift towards digitalization, more and more companies are shying away from printing and prefer sharing digital versions of their contact details.

People in India tend to switch between topics and cover a wide range of points during their conversations. It does not imply a lack of focus but their wish to know where you come from and your environment before they can talk in-depth business.

Gift giving is customary in India. A small token from your end can go a long way in establishing relationships.

Being a multi-cultural and multi religious society, India has many holidays. It’s advisable to check the holiday calendar before fixing up meetings.

Leading a business meeting

Be clear and straightforward about your expectations with your Indian counterparts. Establish clear timelines and weave in details of how you can deliver – financial backing, traction and team. Decision-making process within Indian organizations is comparatively slower and hierarchical than in the west.

Personal relationships are important to Indians, sometimes gaining significance over economic factors. Hence, it’s important to build trust and a mutually respectful relationship in India. Do not hesitate to pick up the phone and make that business call after the first meeting. It is also important to bear in mind that Indians have low tolerance for condescending or highhanded remarks about their country. It is the quickest way to sour relationships.

Closing the deal

There are 150+ Swiss multinationals in India operating from as long back as 1947. The inter-cultural communication can be and has been made very effective by keeping in mind a few simple things.

As a general rule of thumb, manage expectations as much as you can. Ask if the communication and expectations are clear to your Indian counterpart – use different communication methods such as writing, drawing and respectfully asking for repetition to ensure that you are on the same page. Develop a friendly environment and take a lead in the process to ensure that Indian counterparts are encouraged and not afraid to raise the red flags with timeline or quality when such a case arises.

It may take several meetings to close the deal in India. As mentioned earlier, it’s important to be flexible at every stage of business transactions and be ‘seen and heard’ often with Indian companies. Indians find it rude to say no. Be tuned to ‘we’ll see’, ‘I’ll try’, ‘it is not on our radar right now but I’ll keep you posted’, etc. It is not advisable to rush the decision making process as Indians prefer to take time, reflect and get back to you on their decisions. However, do follow-up and keep in constant touch with the Indian counterparts.

In a nutshell, while doing business in India, you should be aware of the cultural diversity, be cautious about generalizing and take the time to develop respectful relationships.