The personal touch: Maintaining business relationships with Asia in 2020

Asia will undoubtedly play a big role in New Zealand's post-COVID recovery, but does maintaining business relationships in Asia when face-to-face meetings are impossible throw up a whole new set of cross-cultural challenges? The Foundation's South Island establishment manager Alistair Crozier takes a look at some of the typical concerns businesspeople voice and how best to negotiate them.
A laptop with a zoom meeting on the screen and the faces of a dozen people

Negotiating online meetings across cultures can seem fraught with potential faux pas but common sense and understanding should see you right

For me, one of the silver linings of this year’s lockdown has been the chance to attend a wide range of webinars and online meetings about New Zealand-Asia business links, and the central role they will play in our post-COVID recovery. 

One of the questions that keeps coming up is how to maintain relationships with business partners in Asia when travel and in-person meetings are impossible. 

It’s good that this question is being asked. It demonstrates an understanding of the importance of personal connections in our Asia business engagement, and that how we maintain those relationships might differ from how we’d do things locally. 

I’m sometimes conflicted on whether human relationships are fundamentally all that different across cultures. 

Whole books have been written about the Chinese concept of ‘guanxi’ as a latticework of personal contacts used to advance one’s interests, as an alternative to more official processes. Relationships in Japan, Thailand and other Asian nations can also be tightly shaped by protocols reflecting the perceived status and seniority of the parties, social context and other unspoken indicators.

But on another level, the concept of going to your circle of friends for advice and assistance when we face a problem, helping friends in need, or personal friendship and trust as the foundation for a successful commercial partnership, are universal social traits that we also understand and use all the time in Aotearoa. 

So, the question that comes up in the webinars doesn’t require a highly scientific answer. On the other hand, the response that I have heard offered – “just use Zoom like everyone else” – needs a bit of refinement.

Two men shaking hands/hugging

Breaking through the formalities and making that first genuine connection will be harder online but not impossible

Because some of our Foundation’s closest relationships are with our stakeholders in Asia (across business, education, the arts, sport, research, media and government), we’ve been closely focused on this issue too. Here are some of the approaches that we have found successful:

  • Reach out: Human empathy is an obvious starting point, as New Zealanders have been showing it to each other a lot recently. It will be appreciated by your Asian contacts too. In the early weeks of our lockdown, our entrepreneurship team reached out to Asian entrepreneurs who had visited New Zealand in recent years through our Young Business Leaders Initiative – not to transact any business, just to check in and see how they were.  This made a genuine impact, as an indication of the value we placed on our relationships at a difficult time.
  • Keep in touch: We have also maintained regular contact with partners, for example our business internship hosts across Asia, even if immediate prospects for BAU cooperation are slim. Ceasing contact and re-starting it when the situation looks brighter could be perceived as transactional, and no-one (in New Zealand or Asia) values a fair-weather friend. The one caveat is to get the timing right. At the Foundation we’ve talked a lot about ‘timing, tone and capacity’ – are our partners in the right space to focus on a discussion, and what do we want to say?
  • Gather info: Receiving real-time local information from your Asian contacts is a valuable chance to understand what is really happening in places you can’t visit right now. Asia is diverse, and different countries, regions within those countries and individual business sectors are all at different stages of the Covid curve.  In the export sector, NZTE, MFAT and others have produced some great country market updates. But complementing this with personal anecdotes from our on-the-ground contacts has been equally useful for us. At the end of the day, your own Asia partners know you and your specific business interests best. 
  • Understand the unspoken: Sometimes Asian culture shies away from direct negative responses, to avoid loss of face to the person spoken to – what’s left unsaid can be the most important part of the message. A presentation that is met with effusive politeness but no questions in response may not have been a successful one. What is the real message being conveyed? If an online discussion is so opaque that confusion remains, consulting someone with a good knowledge of the culture in question may help you to understand what has been ‘said’. 
  • Build friendship. Initial meetings with businesspeople in Asia can sometimes feel stiff and formal. On a business trip, there are many ways to build a more personal connection, but it is harder to do this remotely. An online solution could be something as simple as introducing your family while working from home. Being invited home in Asia is a clear sign that your relationship is being raised to a new level and doing the same when Asian visitors come here is always greatly appreciated. The key is knowing when it’s the right time to shift gears from formal to informal.

The above suggestions might be “teaching a crocodile to swim”, as the Thai equivalent of teaching someone to suck eggs puts it. But that’s really the point: None of this is rocket science, and empathy, two-way communication, common sense and friendship will go a long way towards maintaining and deepening our business relationships with Asia during the months to come.  He aha te mea nui?  He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

About the author

Before joining the Foundation, Alistair established and led New Zealand’s new Consulate-General in Chengdu, Southwest China (2014-18), and served as New Zealand Deputy Ambassador to Viet Nam and Deputy High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea. He was also New Zealand’s first education counsellor to China, and has lived in Japan and Taiwan.

Alistair holds degrees in law and Japanese language from the University of Canterbury, and is a fluent Chinese speaker. He is married to Waan, who is Thai, and they have one daughter.