What We Can Learn From a Failed Sales-Call in China.

We sat in the conference room in Shanghai across the table from the Director of Engineering for one of China’s largest producers of construction equipment. My client was Vice President of a leading electronics components supplier. He was a seasoned sales professional – in fact he had spent nearly his entire career in sales. Needless to say he knew a thing or two about sales.

In sales we say, “Telling is not selling.” In other words, it is hard to learn anything when your mouth is open, relentlessly hawking the benefits of your latest product. Good sales people, we know, spend a lot more of their time listening than talking. This is how they learn what is important to clients. Only then can they craft an offer that is sure to blow away any and all competitive offers.

The VP knew this better than anyone in the room and was determined to get to the bottom of any objection from the client.

He had asked a question about his customer’s supply logistics. The customer had given a vague answer. The VP needed the information since he was crafting a new distribution network and therefore needed to understand the client’s logistical challenges so he could better meet the need. This is Selling 101. Therefore, not getting a clear answer, the VP persisted – determined to get to the bottom of  the matter. After the second try, and another vague response the Director was looking a bit uncomfortable. The VP’s salesman was looking similarly unhappy.

I tried to steer the conversation to a temporary resolution by suggesting we could work on the logistics question on another day.

The VP looked at me like he thought I couldn’t sell a cheeseburger to a starving man…for free! I had worked with this VP for years in complex, challenging selling situations. He knew better. But here I was rolling over and giving up on an important issue after less than 3-4 minutes.

The VP dove in for a third round of questioning the Director. Our salesman became even more uncomfortable. The Director gave another vague answer…then shifted in his chair. I nudged the VP under the table and tried again to take the floor and move on to the next subject.

Sensing pure sales incompetence, the VP would have nothing of it. On his fourth try the Director eased his chair back a few inches and crossed his arms. His staff were busily looking at notes, their computers or the floor.

Finally we managed to move on to the next subject. But the client seemed to have clammed-up. They seemed disengaged. It seemed they just wanted the meeting to be over, as it soon was. Despite lunch being previously planned to follow the meeting, the Director explained that unfortunately they needed to make some changes to the schedule and gracefully excused himself and his team from lunch.

What went wrong here?

Actually it is quite simple and obvious to anyone with business experience in China or other Confucian cultures (such as Korea or Japan).

The Director didn’t know the answer. Or he felt he needed to consult with some of his experts in logistics. Or he felt he needed the buy-in of other peers within the firm…or any number of other myriad reasons.

If he didn’t know or had some other issue, why didn’t he just say so?

To grasp what was going on and to see the obvious and simple solution, we need to understand two concepts of Confucian culture, Xiao and Mianzi.

Xiao is best described as a type of respect for elders. Confucian culture is top-down and highly hierarchical. The boss is normally the eldest, is assumed by all to always know best and, in some ways, to be all-knowing.

Mianzi is best thought of as the sum of a person’s total worth – it is essentially their reputation. Mianzi is fiercely protected by all in Confucian cultures. It is one of the lowest forms of behavior to “lose the face” of another and deeply embarrassing to lose one’s own face.

The VP’s relentless questioning of the Director was steadily demonstrating to all that the Director did not know the answer or was otherwise not empowered to answer. This created a type of pronounced embarrassment for everyone in the room (except the VP). The VP’s persistence was perceived as extremely crude and uncivilized. It was disturbing to all. All this customer and his team wanted was to get out of the room! ASAP!

So, if one is not allowed to ask questions, how can we get the information we need in this environment?

The answer is extremely simple. First, with more experience, the VP could have detected (probably on the basis of the first answer or certainly by the second answer) that it was not possible to resolve the matter in this meeting. Secondly, he could have simply declared that the matter was important to him and requested that his salesman be allowed to engage the Director’s staff offline to resolve the matter at a later date.

Dead-simple…if you’ve been around the block a few times!

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