India presents many diverse and lucrative opportunities for foreign investors and exporters. The population is huge and the economy is growing at exponential rates. The Indian government has initiated many institutional reforms to improve business and as a result India’s rating by the World Bank’s “Doing Business” review has seen a huge jump this past year. Based on the ease of doing business in countries around the world, India is now ranked as 100, down from 130 since 2016.
While India is a great place to consider doing business, it’s important to acquaint yourself with the local business customs. Whenever you do business with someone in another country, it’s a good idea to learn about their culture as it’s both courteous and a good strategy for building a successful partnership. Having a sense of the cultural differences can help prevent offending potential business partners and help you build strong relationships. While the Indian business environment is not dramatically unlike our own, there are a few differences of understanding that it will benefit you to understand and help your business run smoothly.
Sense of Time & Reality
Integral to the way we experience reality is the way we experience time. Unlike westerners who experience time as a linear thing that can be controlled and organized, Indians see time as cyclical and events as unpredictable. Seeing as how life is unpredictable, Indians are comfortable letting time sort out the kinks, in stark contrast to the western sense of rush and deadlines. If you can learn how to relax and trust that time will work everything out, you’ll be much happier working with your business partner.
In line with this, Indians have a relaxed relationship to specific times—if a meeting is at 10, they may show up at 10:30. (In fact, Indians tend to do business later in the day than most western standards, and will set meetings for late morning or even late at night).
Because time and life is not divided into specific categories, such as home and work, Indians are always working, even as they are socializing or drinking chai. All realms of life flow together and a work day does not begin and end at a specific hour. Life and work are one. As such, Indians also don’t take the weekends off. The work environment can seem more relaxed to the western eye, since work and life flow together as one and work is never the sole focus. However, it is never forgotten either. Life IS work. So you can relax.
India has 22 official languages and hundreds of other minor languages. Likewise, there are hundreds of different cultures and ways of seeing the world. While you’ll probably be doing business with someone who speaks English, remember that understanding goes deeper than words. You’ll want to make sure you are really on the same page, because relying on what you think the words mean may get you into trouble.
In general, Indian people tend to be indirect communicators and do not like to say no. They always strive to preserve harmony in the group, and thus will not necessarily relay specific information clearly. Be sure to get very direct answers by asking specific questions, such as, “what can you deliver?” instead of “can you deliver X amount of…”
Remember to be patient as you strive to work out issues. You may want to get to the point, but being blunt may be seen as rude and counter to the “relationship first” way of communicating.
Group vs. Individual
Unlike westerners who have a very individualistic mindset and way of acting in the world, Indians have a collective mentality and act accordingly. The group is above the individual and harmony within the group is of paramount importance. A workplace is like a family. Personal relationship is very important.
As such, you are not just a business partner, but a new family member. Therefore, you will be invited to the home for food and expected to reciprocate in kind. Meetings should start with casual and friendly conversation, instead of just jumping to the points of business. In fact your first meeting may not mention business at all, since it’s important to have a strong relationship and a good understanding before launching into business negotiations. Don’t rush—this is considered rude. Relax and get to know your partners.
Within a company, organization is also based on family and the CEO is like the head of the family. They are given a lot of respect and can even seem a bit autocratic to western tastes. However, their obligation to their employees also extends further than that of a typical western working relationship.
Additionally, in a meeting, it is often not clear who is in charge because you may be talking to 4 or 5 people while the highest ranking person is not even actively engaged. Instead, they are evaluating, while others in the collective are doing the negotiating. Be prepared for this sort of organization and it will save you some confusion.
Flexibility and Patience
The most important thing when working with your Indian business partner is to remember to be patient. Things are different in India and the less western expectations you have and more flexibility you can show, the better off you’ll be.
Indian time can be slow or fast. You never know if a delivery will come through in a day or a month. Keep an open mind, be flexible, and it will all work out in the end. Even once you have made a final deal, you will find that renegotiating is a part of Indian business. Since things are always changing and life is unpredictable, you must be fluid in business as well.
Additionally, expect to be interrupted often. Indian people are multi-taskers, and because life and work all flow together and it’s such an integrated way of living, cellphones are never turned off and will be answered in the middle of a presentation. A visitor may come in and distract from your meeting. Go with the flow. Let go of your western sense of a single focus and trust that your host is picking up what you’re laying down. They are used to doing many things at once, so don’t worry that you’re being ignored or forgotten.