09 Jul 2015 18:05 IST

Get talking… and the networking will follow

How to deal with foreign clients in both work and non-work situations

When Indians go to the client’s sites overseas or have to network in non-technical scenarios or environments, we seem to have a problem forging friendships by engaging in small talk or using the small opportunities to foster goodwill.

Let’s consider some samples:

Elevating subjects

Recently, an Indian manager who had returned from a visit abroad shared this dilemma with me: “I was in an elevator with one of my clients. We talked generally about work but I was keen on establishing a relationship and, perhaps, build a personal connect on any issue. I was not very successful in doing that in the two-three minutes that I had with him. What should I have done instead?”

This was my advice to him: In the US, and in most parts of the western world, the personal and the professional are kept separate. If the other person initiates personal conversation, then do respond. If, for instance, he or she says: “My son loves the dumplings served in this Chinese restaurant,” then you could ask: “Oh, how old is your son?” or you might say “I love dumplings too, what does your son do?” Then, based on the other person’s response — warm/restrained — you can decide whether to pursue that line of conversation or to drop it.

Great examples of impersonal topics to discuss outside the formal business scene would include the weather (Is it unusual to have rain now?), food (this cheese is excellent!) and sports (I don’t follow tennis/cricket/soccer very much; I would love to have you explain it sometime).

Games people play

Sometimes we tend to give long-winded explanations instead of just the crux of the information required.

Scenario: During a presentation, a relationship manager from India addressed a client’s question in great detail, but the client was still unclear at the end of his explanation. This caused some anxiety during the meeting that could have been avoided.

Ideal outcome: The Indian should have first answered the question directly and then backed it up with the rationale. This would have put the client at ease.

Scenario: Person asks: When can I have the full proposal?

Answer that gets no one anywhere: It will take at least two days to test it in the laboratory. Also, we must compare it with the previous version properly. We want to ensure it is a plug-and-play version. So let’s see … (question “when” not yet answered.)

Answering to the point: Thursday before noon, your time. I need the extra two days to first test it in our laboratory. Then our offsite team will compare it with the version we sent you last year. It will make it much easier for you to use the solution as a plug-and-play.

Social interaction requires effort. If you stand around hoping people will come and talk to you, you are likely to be left doing just that: standing. What’s even worse, if you hang out with a bunch of other Indians, as they are your comfort zone, your non-Indian business associates will consider you to be nerdy and part of the office clique. Relax, come out of your comfort zone. Networking is everything these days. Stay curious, stay open.

And now for some general dos and don’ts in a non-Indian business setting:

No propping yourself in your co-worker’s office after office hours assuming you can chat. Instead, if you want to have some ‘connect’ time with him, say: “Do you want to grab a coffee/drink after work?”

No back-slapping, hugging, touching, patting (remember, physical space is important to the other person even if of the same sex).

No prying personal questions: How old is your mom? How many sisters do you have? When did you get divorced? (Mental space is as important as physical space, and needs to be respected).

No asking for home/mobile phone numbers: Wait till it’s given to you without asking.

It’s a good idea to talk about:

Local sports teams: Large cities have a team for every sport - football, baseball, basketball, ice-hockey, among others.

Local educational institutions: A lot of people in any given business setting will be alumni of prestigious institutions.

Places to eat: That’s usually a good way to establish rapport.

Recreation: “Can you recommend things I could do during the weekend?”

All these questions can get a conversation going.

You could also try paying a sincere compliment. Only, remember, if you’re a man and if it’s a woman you’re talking to, be sure you don’t get too personal, so it doesn’t get termed sexual harassment.

To be on the safe side, you could run a few compliments past a trusted friend to make sure they won’t be considered offensive in a non-Indian context.

An example of an acceptable compliment would be a generic one: “What an unusual colour!” referring to a lady’s dress, or accessories.

As you get talking, you’ll find bridges being built. So run along, have that chat.