What is the most religiously auspicious date to inaugurate a new factory? Should I promote an unmarried person as boss over someone who is married? These are just two of the many cultural questions facing Swiss firms that do business in India.
Despite a recent slowdown, the huge Indian economy has proved extremely fertile for Swiss companies with exports and direct investment galloping ahead since the turn of the Millennium. But any foreign market offers pitfalls as well as opportunities.
“India has proved one of the most exciting yet complex and challenging countries we have operated in,” Conrad Sonderegger, sales director at Swiss sensors and measuring systems firm Kistler, told swissinfo.ch.
One of the biggest challenges is to unravel and understand the ingrained, multi-dimensional culture of India. At times, Indian society can clash with the disciplined, structured Swiss business ethic of perfection.
An unfettered spirit of improvisation, or ‘make-it-up-as-you-go-along’ philosophy, is framed within unyielding family and wider social hierarchies. To make matters more mystifying for the Zurich executive, who takes it for granted that trains coordinate schedules throughout Switzerland, each region of India has its unique cultural flavor – a task akin to understanding a number of countries within a country.
Postcard from India
Zurich-based consultancy firm Marwas conducted a survey of what Indian employees of Swiss firms thought of their colleagues in Switzerland.
While some comments from the sample group were positive, others revealed that more homework on the cross-cultural divide remains to be completed.
“The work practices of our colleagues in Switzerland leans heavily on work processes, while we focus more on problem solving.”
“Even the smallest errors don’t pass our Swiss colleagues by. This ensures the highest quality, which we could learn in India.”
“The Swiss believe that their approach to problem solving is the only way. Our solutions are ignored and that’s frustrating.”
“While Indians are satisfied if a technical solution is working reasonably well, the Swiss demand perfection. It would be much better if we adopted this attitude in India.”
“On the phone they are always friendly, but their emails are often coarse.”
“Our Swiss colleagues want all the technical specifications documented in the minutest detail. We sometimes find this tedious but have come to learn that it is necessary to ensure a smooth operation.”
“Indians can get quite irritated by what they perceive as a cold approach from Swiss colleagues," Waseem Hussain, Marwas CEO, told Swissinfo.ch.
“There are still relatively few Indians that have travelled extensively abroad. Indian managers and engineers are starting to slowly realise that they need to go through a real learning phase to work out how the Swiss mind really ticks.”
Typically, an Indian salesperson will promise to fix all the problems of a prospective client during their first meeting, according to Waseem Hussain, chief executive of Zurich-based consultancy firm Marwas that helps Swiss and Indian companies do business in each other’s markets.
The salesperson knows that this cannot be achieved with the current tools at his firm’s disposal, but has faith in colleagues to find a solution to any new challenge.
“The salesperson is not trying to deceive his client, but is applying the long standing principle of Jugaad,” Hussain told swissinfo.ch. “This word derives from the term ‘magic’ and means the Indian art of improvisation.”
The client will then probe the salesperson over a series of future meetings in a cat-and-mouse game of finding out what can realistically be offered, but will still expect a contractor to turn their hand to a variety of tasks.
This conflicts with the typical Swiss approach of isolating a specific need of a prospective client and offering a niche product that can do the job better than anyone else.
“Clients sometime turn around after a technical presentation of a product and ask: ‘what else can you do?’,” Conrad Sonderegger told swissinfo.ch. “Doing business also involves a lot more meetings than we are used to in Switzerland.”
Best people for the job
Knowing who to speak to is also a crucial talent in a society that has a strict hierarchical structure where people jealously guard their patch and can take offence at an underling or perceived rival being approached first. In family-run businesses, for example, it is always the father or eldest son who call the final shots.
Finding the right local employees is key to cracking the social and cultural codes of India, according to William Christensen, head of international sales at Swiss sanitary product specialists Geberit.
“We look for people with local know-how who understand the region and the family business dynamics,” he said. “But they also need to be far enough removed from the local infrastructure to properly understand the Western value system.”
Training recruits often involves stints in Switzerland to integrate them into the values of the company. On the other side of coin, Geberit sends Swiss employees out to India as often as practicable.
“If an Indian employee, who has not been out of his own country very much, sees a Swiss colleague eating like him and travelling the same way as he does, then he knows that his colleague is trying his best to adapt to his way of thinking,” he said.
Then it becomes easier to instill Swiss work ethics in Indian employees, with a little compromise and deference to local thinking.
“Indian business culture is more short-term oriented than Switzerland and a little laxer in recognizing deadlines,” Christensen said. “We have to set clear shorter-term goals and manage them in with a more hands-on approach.”
Managing staff in India also requires a degree of patience and new cultural understanding for Swiss bosses. Even small unintentional mistakes can lead to problems, says Waseem Hussain.
“Swiss companies like to hire young graduates in their early 20s who have not yet learned to think for themselves,” he said. “In Indian culture a man does not really come of age until he has married and only then will he feel empowered to make decisions.”
“A married man would not easily accept an unmarried colleague as a boss, and the single person could very well feel intimidated by this unorthodox position.”
Investing time in staff is essential, according to Zurich-based Baker & Mckenzie India specialist Philippe Reich. “You need to know what you want and why, and you need to think mid-to long- term rather than short-term when doing business in India, and, therefore, you need to be patient. You need to invest not just money but personal dedication. Oftentimes, problems arise when management is delegated without sufficient supervision and control”.
And no foreign business incursion into India can afford to ignore the deeply sensitive and multi-faceted religious network that dominates the country. Whilst no company would want to get too involved in religious issues, a little understanding could go a long way.
“It still holds true that religious beliefs can play a role in choosing the most opportune moment to take important business decisions,” Baker & Mckenzie India specialist Philippe Reich said.
“I experienced this myself when, for instance, the incorporation of a Swiss subsidiary was timed in consideration of such soft factors rather than hard facts.”