Into my third or fourth year dealing extensively with Asian clients, with a few American/UK clients thrown in, I had formed most of the ideas written here. However, I shied away from this topic because it is a form of stereotyping, and being an Indian expat living in Singapore, I have seen enough of stereotyping applied to me to be wary of it. I decided to write it down only when I was able to present my perspective constructively.
Let me start with my experience with Western clients. As an Asian service provider working with Western clients, you start at an even keel. They choose you after careful evaluation and once you have passed that test, you are their equal, unless you prove them wrong. Innocent until proven guilty…
The work that you execute is considered to be of equal value to both parties and its success likewise equally important. This trust at the starting point of the relationship lasts a long time, through the usual ups and downs of project DLC, provided you are professional and competent. You operate mostly in an environment of trust and partnership.
Coming to Asian customers, I have come across two types of relationships between them and Asian service providers. The first and the more common type of relationship is hierarchical. There is some kind of unseen but powerful driver that forces Asian customers to be aloof and somewhat distrustful of their vendors, as they refer to their service providers. Actions and decisions are often scrutinized for hidden agendas. You have to work much harder to build trust. Guilty until proven innocent! But it’s not all bad. The good thing is that once you have built this trust, it will last a long time. Customers are not likely to go to a competing vendor as easily because the barrier to entry is too high. Great thing for repeat business!
The other type of relationship between Asian customers and vendors is quite the opposite and seen in situations when the vendor’s expertise is well known and well demonstrated, usually in consultant roles. There you see a kind of respect for you as an individual that borders on adulation. Great for business but the downside is that this respect is reserved for only one individual, making it difficult to scale up such a relationship.
As in any generalization, there are exceptions. And just like any generalization, this knowledge can be useful if used effectively. Had I known about these differences at the start of my career in Singapore, I would have made fewer errors with customers and been less perplexed by some incidents. I would also have known how to overcome the barriers that seemed out of place and context at that time.