Localization Business School: Building trust in China

While I was out to dinner on my first night in China, someone entered my room, examined the content of my laptop and suitcase, and installed spyware on my MacBook. In 2011, I was an invited guest and the only Western participant at the Localization Service Industry Forum in Shenzhen. It may have been coincidence, but my hotel was placed in the middle of the elite academy of the Communist Party.

Today, the Translation Association of China name me one of the most trusted Westerners in localization in China. Here is what I learned in getting there. Disclaimer, I am in no way an expert on China, its people, culture or economy. I just was somehow able to build trust. This is a synthesis of my observations.


The process of trust-building

Don’t expect it to be fast. Building trust takes time. A lot of time. It has a process and it can be measured in four areas:

1. Knowledge

2. Experience

3. Likability

4. Dependability

This order is important. For example, if you are likeable, but have limited knowledge or experience, people will not trust you with a project that requires specific subject matter expertise. While being nice and accommodating may make it easy to get your foot in the door, you better also have something substantial to say, or you will be out of the door in no time.

This is not specific to China, however. I believe that the process of building trust is similar in all cultures. If you are a foreigner, it just takes longer no matter where you are. Here are the four steps of building trust in detail.

Knowledge: Demonstrating knowledge is crucial for establishing trust in professional relationships. That’s why people use academic credentials or certifications in their signatures. They usually signal your level of knowledge. The theory goes that a professor knows more than a master’s degree student, who in turn knows more than a high school graduate, and a PMP knows more about project management than a self-trained localization manager.

While I do not subscribe to that common belief, Chinese people tend to value education more than most nations — and especially teachers in academic institutions. China, for example, has the largest education system in the world. Investments in education account for about 4% of total gross domestic product. If you have no academic degree, a well-written white paper or self-published book will often also do.

Experience: You may have met or heard of those people who know everything in theory, but cannot implement anything themselves. We typically call them intellectuals. In China, however, university professors often practice what they preach.

For example, Professor Chai Mingjiong is dean of the Graduate Institute of Interpretation and Translation, and he also runs the for-profit language services company Shanghai Language Services Center for Cultural Trade. A poster child of an academic turned successful owner of a language services company is Dr. James Wei. He has an academic background in science and research and successfully runs a premier Chinese localization company, EC Innovations.

In China, universities and government support or drive businesses much more than elsewhere in the world. Take, for example, Jack Ma. Before he founded Alibaba, he headed an information technology company established by a department of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, which is now called Ministry of Commerce, and which in turn supports and directs the Translators Association of China (TAC).

In China, it is never really clear where collaboration between academia, universities, business and association begins and where it ends. But in order to build trust, it is essential to show a sufficient combination of knowledge and expertise.

Likability: You may have worked with specialists your customers love because of their phenomenally great work, but who also have significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication. You will entrust them with specific tasks that fit their knowledge and expertise, but will not have them talk to a customer unsupervised, having such conversations managed by someone with people skills instead.

Likability is a key business competence. You will especially need it when trying to build a relationship in China — or anywhere outside the context of your culture. Interestingly, putting too much emphasis on avoiding cultural blunders can actually make you less likable. You may prevent yourself from offending anyone, but you also will have come across as less authentic.

Be yourself, avoid extremes and understand that no other person sees your reality. So do not impose yours on them. They won’t see it the way you do. Just observe what others are doing, and follow.

One of the internal mottos in Team Lawless is to work hard and be nice. It’s difficult to do it right all the time. We are not always at our best. But people will forgive cultural mistakes when they know you as a hard worker who generously and genuinely gives.

Chinese business partners will usually be friendly and welcoming. They are often great hosts. That, however, is not a token of acceptance, but sheer politeness. Chinese people, more than Westerners, inherently understand that people will reveal themselves over time. Sometimes it can take a lot of time before they feel truly comfortable around you.

Your first business meeting might end with some friendly handshakes. Then you may start having dinners together. When your Chinese partners take you to a foot massage, you have climbed up the ladder of trust. If you are a man, do not be surprised when you are asked if you also want “a beautiful Chinese girl” that can give you a “happy ending.”

My response to that question usually is that I would either need to tell my wife or take it to my grave — and neither option is attractive. I usually get sorry looks in return. I do not know what that level of trust in China looks like for a woman.

One ultimate sign of approval for a man, though, seems to be going to a bath house together, where it is absolutely normal to talk real business, totally naked, while sweating in a sauna or soaking in a hot tub.

Dependability: How dependably you deliver on your promises, actually made or perceived, will determine whether you achieve the highest level of trust. This may be the hardest thing to achieve. Since it is not always clear what Chinese business partners expect from you, it is also easy to disappoint without even knowing it.

I briefed a Chinese partner once on what and what not to say in a customer presentation. As many sales people do, he decided to give his presentation his way after all. When the meeting turned out a failure I had, in their eyes, betrayed the relationship. However, they never shared their sentiments with me, but went silent instead. It took me two years and a mutual friend to get the relationship back on track.

You never really fully know where you stand, but when you have the right connections, it’s amazing what you can get done in China.

In May 2014, I was all set to deliver my keynote speech at the International Fair for Trade in Services (CIFTIS) in Beijing. There was only one problem. My presentation did not work as intended. Internet censorship and access restrictions from China did not allow me to show the web localization I’d focused on because the referenced sites were simply not available. For one, my company’s own website was blocked. But so was video content on the home page of The World Bank. So, I jokingly mentioned that Rockant was on the same level with The World Bank.

And then, something amazing happened. A Chinese official pulled me aside after my speech and said in excellent English: “So, you cannot access your data? I sincerely apologize. You will be able to do so in about an hour.” And I was!

My only question is: How did he make that happen? How did he know to let my computer, specifically, through the big firewall of China? I guess you never really know where you stand in China.