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Selling to India: Avoid Assumptions

Western companies looking to increase revenues internationally are turning increasingly to India, and with good reason. When the U.S. Department of Commerce undertook a trade mission to India in late 2006, it quickly ballooned into the largest-ever such undertaking for the agency, with 239 companies participating. American exports to India rose 73.4 percent in 2007 compared to the previous year.

Last October, the United States and India approved a historic civilian nuclear energy agreement, which will permit American companies to sell hundreds of billions of dollars of nuclear reactors and fuel as India ramps up its production of electrical energy. Beyond nuclear energy, this agreement is expected to open up vast new areas of technology trade, where India has been historically hesitant to buy American. While companies such as Boeing, General Electric, and IBM already successful selling into the country, thousands of others are still ramping up.

But lucrative though it may be, selling into India has the potential to be a perplexing, frustrating endeavor for a first-time visitor to the country. Never fear: By avoiding the following five pitfalls, you can significantly increase the likelihood your experience will be a positive one.

1. Assuming sameness. Many Westerners visit India under the assumption it will be easy to communicate with Indians. After all, they speak English.

Not quite. While most business in large Indian companies is indeed conducted in English, Indians have developed their own flavor of the language—one which may seem quite foreign to an American ear. Many words are retained from the English spoken a hundred years ago. In addition, certain English words have acquired a special flavor of meaning that may be very different from what we expect in the West. For example, when an Indian refers to a "scheme," it is simply another name for a plan—nothing underhanded or nefarious. When he or she would like to "intimate" you, it simply means he or she will inform you.

When you are new to selling in India, speak slowly and enunciate your words carefully. Your accent may be strange to Indian ears, and by slowing down you give the other party a chance to keep up. Many Indians are too polite to interrupt or ask for clarification if they do not understand a particular word or phrase.

Avoid the use of metaphors and idioms—especially sports idioms (Indians do not play baseball, so when you want to hit a "home run" with your sales, they may be befuddled). Also, avoid contractions. To Indian ears, the American pronunciation of "can't" does not sound that different from "can," so try using "cannot" instead.

By being sensitive to Indian English, you will align to the needs of your prospects more quickly and be rewarded handsomely.

2. Assuming punctuality. In the West, we are accustomed to the sanctity of appointment times. But in general, you will find Indians have a much more relaxed attitude toward time. Quips American executive David Bradley about one of the first cross-cultural lessons learned in India: "Just because someone makes me wait 30 minutes to see them, it does not mean I am not important to them."

Experts say India is best described as a polychronic culture, where time is considered a flexible and cyclical entity in plentiful supply. Do not schedule yourself too tightly when setting up initial meetings; allot enough time for getting to know your client and to manage unexpected delays. Most Indians adjust to surprises on a daily basis. The faster you learn to do the same, the more direct will be your path to success. In the long run, customer relationships in India can be more durable than in the West, so you do make up for the additional upfront investment.

3. Assuming sameness (part two). There is no easy answer to the question "How do Indians think?" Would you sell to a Norwegian prospect in the same say you might to someone in Italy? India is more like a continent than a country in some ways. There are 23 distinct languages, along with many diverse religions and cultures. Just because you understand Mukesh Patel in Ahmedabad (in Western India) doesn't mean that you can apply all that learning in to selling to Shankar Muthuswamy in Chennai (in South India).

Head nods, expressions, mannerisms, accents, and even names differ from one region to the next. The diversity of head nods alone is enough to perplex a Westerner. The Western style nod, with the head moving up and down, is only common among Indians who are regularly exposed to the Western culture. Most Indians vigorously shake their head from right to left a couple of times to say no—but there are a variety of ways to say yes, depending upon the region, the speaker, or the context. A south Indian may appear to make a figure of eight with his head, while a north Indian may give a yes with one or more jerky sideways tilts of their head.

Western salespeople often assume these head nods mean "no" and end up losing a sale. When in doubt, ask your Indian prospect to clarify in words, such as by saying, "Mr. Patel, do you mean to say yes, you will place an annual order for the tools?"

4. Assuming agreement. As in many other Asian cultures, open disagreement is often considered rude or improper in India. Indians may tell you yes, because they sense you want to hear a yes. Sometimes, an Indian may want to voice a "no" but tell you "yes" in an attempt to preserve your dignity. In this aspect aggressive sales behavior can be counterproductive in India; it may cause you to waste time with polite prospects who are unqualified.

If you pursue with gentle-but-firm questions, and listen and observe very carefully, you will develop the ability to hear conditions, qualifiers, and other indirect indications the Indian is actually trying to tell you "no" or "maybe." Remember, in India, indirectness is not the same as indirection. The former implies subtlety and sophistication, the latter deceitfulness. Many Indians are indirect by nature.

5. Assuming all is well. After a series of successful meetings in India, you return on that exhausting 15-hour flight back and e-mail some rosy sales projections to your colleagues. And then…no orders arrive. For a long, long time.

Your Indian prospect may tend to defer or delay bad news, and even objections to the sale. As a good salesperson, you must redouble your efforts to ferret out any snags or problems that could hinder the sale. You must over-invest to develop trust with any champions for your cause, inside your prospect organization. If possible develop multiple channels of communication to receive a reliable flow of "bad" news; you will soon find you can identify and overcome objections readily.

If you heed these five simple pitfalls, you will be light years ahead of endearing yourself and your company to your prospects in India. Note this is easier to do in India than in many Asian countries, because Indians have a long history of dealing with cultures other than their own. You aren't perceived as an outsider for long, because Indians are dealing with "internal" outsiders on a daily basis. And then you can rake in the rupees.

Gunjan Bagla is a Los Angeles-based management consultant with Amritt (www.amritt.com), as well as the author of Doing Business in 21st Century India: How to Profit Today in Tomorrow's Most Exciting Market.