If there’s someone who knows something about successfully doing business in China, it’s Alison Airey, CEO of the Australia China Business Council (ACBC). The ACBC is a membership-based, non-profit, non-government organisation which actively promotes two-way trade and investment, and economic cooperation and understanding, between the business communities of Australia and China.
The ACBC is a key resource for Australian business looking to target the Chinese market, providing them with the opportunity to not just network but also learn from other people’s experience. And there’s a huge need for an organisation like this. “People with China expertise from two years ago are amazed at how much things have changed, how trends have changed, how consumer preferences have changed. So they'll never be any shortage of things for us to shed some light on,” she says.
Airey also brings to the role around 15 years of public service, in particular her work with the NSW Department of Industry, in which she helped manage Chinese relations and attract Chinese investment.
To gain more insight into the ins and outs of doing business in and with China, I decided to pick her brain. Here are some key takeaways from our chat.
The difference between a Chinese and Western investment mindset
One of the things that surprised Airey when she first began working with Chinese companies was how diversified Chinese companies were, and how different their investment strategies were. While, say, a US investor with a speciality in chemicals looking to invest in Australia would look closely at the chemical sector and have a very clear, predetermined commercial strategy, this is not the case with many Chinese investors.
“Many Chinese firms are highly diversified so when they come to Australia, quite often they want to invest, but they haven't got a clear strategy about what they want to invest in … I was dealing with these companies that had interests across so many different sectors and they would say, ‘Oh, we're into batteries and tourism’, for example. And so I learnt that, with Chinese companies, the strategy is a lot more flexible. Rather than going in with a predetermined market strategy, they would just have this money available that they wanted to invest in Australia.”
The importance of developing cross-cultural communication skills
A key challenge for Australian organisations doing business in or with China, says Airey, is cross-cultural communication.
“What I've noticed coming into this role is that a lot of companies are grappling with cross-cultural or bi-cultural communication issues – so really the softer skills in terms of business with China – and that means dealing with Chinese customers, but also Chinese employees. More and more companies are realising that to address the Chinese market they need to have staff with Chinese cultural skills, but integrating those teams and making them work effectively, given the different cultural backgrounds of those employees, is proving challenging for quite a number of them.”
To help combat this, ACBC are putting on a number of workshops throughout the year, addressing different aspects of cross-cultural communication, with the first one being on the Chinese approach to negotiation. (Find out more about upcoming events here.)
What sets apart the successes from the failures
When attempting to break into China’s market, there can be a sense of complacency – after all, if you only want a small piece of the huge pie, it shouldn’t be that hard, right?
Not so, says Airey.
“I think a lot of people do see the size of the opportunity and assume that if they just get a small portion of that, they will be really successful. I think the flip side of China being a huge market is that, as well as a lot of consumers, there are also a lot of suppliers and entrepreneurs. It's a highly competitive society. So, even though it's a big market, you still do need to stand out from the crowd. You do need to offer value. You do need to have a really sophisticated marketing strategy.”
So what sets apart the successes from the failures? Airey says there a few characteristics the successful companies, both large and small, have in common: perseverance, a proven track record, the right partner in China, and a strong online presence.
The key to successfully doing business in China is to not expect immediate results, says Airey.
“The story I hear over and over again is that ‘It was harder than we imagined it would be,’ and this is even from companies that have gone on to prove very successful. It takes longer than people expect. Persistence, patience – those are the things that you need to go in with as part of your mindset from the outset.”
A proven track record at home
“Another thing that is a strong basis for success in China is having had initial success in Australia,” says Airey. “You need to prove yourself in this market, because Chinese consumers do lots of research about products that they buy, so they want to see that they're buying a product which is popular and successful. So you really do need to have that track record of success in Australia before tackling the Chinese market.”
Finding the right partner
Good relationships are absolutely crucial when doing business in China, so this is one aspect you want to make sure you get right.
“Don't fall into the trap that some people do of making one business trip, and meeting someone who speaks really good English or seems to have a very magnetic personality [and partnering with them]. Do your research, and choose a company that's right for you, that has commercial objectives closely aligned to yours. Make a careful decision and build up a relationship with a partner over a period of time.”
There are plenty of resources to help businesses find the right partner, says Airey, including government agencies such as Austrade. Private companies are another option. “It's always worth paying for the right advice,” she says.
A strong online presence
Another thing Airey says is vital to successfully doing business in China is a strong online presence.
“I think having a good online presence is absolutely fundamental to the Chinese market. Choosing the right form of online presence, and making sure that whichever platform you use is well aligned to your target market … That's absolutely critical, given the way technology is moving so rapidly.”