Compiled from our research, experience on the ground in India and interviews with both Indian and Western business executives, here is a roundup of tactics and strategies to consider in navigating the business culture success in India. These are presented in alphabetical order for ease of reference.
Be careful when it comes to trying to facilitate decisions. Sticking to your company’s ethical guidelines is crucial, and shortcuts through bribes can ruin your reputation, as well as having legal consequences. As a colleague from the Canadian firm, Lea Consulting Ltd states “make your company’s ethics policy clear upfront”
Exercise a lot of patience for any business transaction and business success in India. Bureaucratic hurdles and a laidback approach to work in the government circles are par for the course. You will face delays in processing, an overload of paperwork, and a general lack of certainty as to the next step.
Giving and receiving business cards is common and expected even at social gatherings. Be sure to have a business card, but there is no need to present it in the bowing fashion seen in other parts of Asia.
Both Indian men and women will shake hands with foreign men and women. Westerners of both sexes might consider using the “namaste” gesture, bowing slightly with palms pressed together below the chin, instead of offering a hand.
Formal address is preferred. Use surnames and, when applicable, professional titles like “Doctor.” Use of first names is generally not appropriate. Forms of address can also vary according to ethnic group, religion, and local culture, so find out what is customary before you meet people.
Prior to any visit to India, it is crucial to check the Calendar of Indian holidays and religious festivals. Arriving in the middle of a major festival will completely disrupt your business prospects. Also, it is important to appreciate that many festivals and holidays are regional in nature.
Western retail companies operating in India need to account for the fact that the Indian consumer tends to shop when a big festival is around the corner. Even e-retail outlets like Amazon have had to switch to the Indian sales patterns.
The well-known Indian rolling of heads is a sign of acknowledgement and affirmation, and not a negative. You will get used to it and learn to acknowledge it appropriately.
English is one of the 22 officially recognized languages, so you usually do not have to worry about language barriers in India. No one frowns on the use of English — almost all in business circles have studied it in school.
In general, e-mail alone is not always effective. Indians like alternative forms of communication, such as WhatsApp text messages, and they often appreciate phone calls.
In your discussions, it is recommended that you show an interest in things that are not business-related, by making a point of commenting positively about things you saw on the way to the meeting, or about the food. You can’t go wrong by showing an interest in cricket.
Generally, Indians will cancel a meeting later, rather than say no from the start. If an Indian person agrees to meet, but says they are busy, it may mean they will cancel at the last minute. It does not mean your dealings are done, but it does mean it was not a priority for them.
Use of mobile phones, even during meetings, is customary and not intended to be a sign of disrespect.
Draw on overseas Indians. There are many businesspeople of Indian origin in all Western countries with experience in the Indian market, who can be an invaluable resource on its needs and subtleties.
Get involved with local Indian business associations to meet these people and demonstrate your interest in Indian culture, food, and entertainment. I continue to be surprised that many Western businesspeople who have dealings in India do not reach out to the diaspora. They are missing a key channel in doing business in India.
Indians in general are much more conservative in the way they dress. Western men should avoid dressing in a casual manner and, of course, be mindful of the temperatures. Western women are best advised to dress modestly and formally.
Western consumer product firms should be mindful of the fact that Indian customers have traditionally desired durable and rugged products. They tend to buy with the intention of long- term use. For example, Nokia marketed its 1100 phone with the tagline “Made for India”. It was a sturdy phone, waterproof rubber coated and stain resistant, ideal for the Indian farmers and truck drivers and was a business success in India.
In India, guests are treated with utmost respect and courtesy and your Indian counterpart will take pains to make sure that you enjoy Indian hospitality. Evening receptions and dinners will go late so you need to be aware of this as you plan your schedule. You may be exhausted but need to go with the flow.
Business entertaining is usually done outside the home, but you may also receive invitations to people’s residences. You may be overwhelmed with the offerings but take things in stride.
If you are hosting a lunch meeting, always ask if you have any vegetarian guests. If there are, make sure that there are nice choices for them. If you are a nonvegetarian at a business lunch in a restaurant, make sure it does not offend your vegetarian counterparts if you order meat.
India has a tipping culture (10% in restaurants).
Gifts are not normally expected at initial meetings but can be a positive gesture when you have concluded a business negotiation or when you are marking a milestone in the business relationship. Small gifts such as chocolates or books can be appropriate, as can items with significant symbolism of your home country or which possess your company emblem.
Gifts should be given and received with both hands and should not be opened in the presence of the provider.
If more than one person is attending your meeting, the gift should be presented to the most senior delegate. Always bring a small gift (such as chocolates, fruit, or desserts) for the host or hostess if you’re invited to a person’s house. Do not assume that a bottle of wine will be an appropriate gift unless you know that your host drinks alcohol.
Be mindful of the importance of hierarchy when dealing with Indian businesses and you may need to go through meetings with subordinates before accessing decision makers. You should try to ascertain who is the authority figure and consider whether you or a senior colleague can realistically access the decision maker.
A positive sign that you are progressing with your transaction may be the offering of a cell phone number by the CEO of your Indian partner organization.
As you plan your strategy, you need to make sure you have sufficient top management commitment and adequate resources to manage relationships and the hierarchy within your counterpart organizations.
If you are setting up an enterprise in India, the best advice is to consult extensively with those with experience in managing human resources in India. A key element of the strategy should be to employ individuals who can straddle both Western and Indian culture. As mentioned by Samco Machinery of Canada, “human resource management is your biggest challenge in India”.
Remember that cultural issues related to human resources in India can cover quite a spectrum, including recruitment, personal development, retention, holidays and employee absence for personal reasons, management alignment, corporate training, and employee appreciation programs. Western companies planning to create a work environment in their subsidiary in India like that of their home operation need a strong dose of patience and flexibility.
This guide has been produced by Marvin Hough, a Canadian business executive and university professor with extensive experience in international markets. During his career, he has facilitated Canadian exports and investments to global markets while working for 30 years with Canada’s official export agency, Export Development Canada (EDC). His career included overseas assignments in India, China, and Mexico where he faced and observed business culture issues on a day-to-day basis.
Since completing his EDC career, Mr. Hough has continued to be actively involved in international business through teaching at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management where he has led MBA consulting trips to markets such as China, Brazil, South Africa, and Vietnam.
Mr. Hough also runs his own firm, Marvin Hough International Research and Analysis Limited (MIRA) (www.miraservices.ca) which supports Canadian and international companies, educational institutions, and governments in entering and operating in diverse international markets.
Throughout his career, Mr. Hough has felt that Western firms should place more attention on understanding and adapting to business culture as they conduct business in global markets. He is pleased to collaborate with Global Business Culture to support greater understanding on the business culture file by producing these guides.