Friends don’t ask friends for discounts…

I have noted in previous posts a strong uptick in my cross cultural training courses in recent months which has primed me to pick up on some interesting ways that cultural filters show up time and again in business. One of the things we always talk about is how western cultures (particularly the US and countries like Germany) are heavily influenced by criteria decision making while in China things are influenced by relationships. The average tourist in China who was gone off the grid and gone shopping in a market where haggling and fake goods are predominant has undoubtedly run into one of the most common business manifestations of this cultural filter, “the friend discount.”

In 2001 I came back to China for the first time since 1997 (which in turn was the first time since 1989) and spent a fair bit more time sight seeing on my own than I had in previous trips. One of the more exciting places I ran into (and would go back to frequently until moving to Guangzhou in 2005) was the Xiang Yang Market. For those of you who missed out on this experience the Market was THE PLACE to get fake goods ranging from CK underwear, to Columbia Gore-Tex, to CDs and DVDs. This was a great place to learn your numbers and your haggling skills in Chinese because no price was really fixed and if you tried hard enough you could get some “really good deals” on practically anything.

Xiang Yang Market Circa 2004

In 2001 one of the things that most impressed me about the shop keepers was that they all seemed to know some key English and overwhelmingly they new how to give me a “friend discount.” To my understanding all these years later friends will try there hardest to knock at least 10% off of whatever price they would give to just any sucker walking by. Friends would also continue with some protesting to come down on that price and additional 10-70% depending on what you were buying. But to really get you into the shop and get you to “taste the goods” so to speak they would throw that friendship discount out early and fast to let you know they were reasonable. There might be a vague hint to some criteria based haggling (“look how well this underwear is made”) but the underlying theme was deals were being made because they liked you and only because the shop keepers were willing to sacrifice to keep our relationship in good standing were they willing to keep bringing the price down.

Good hagglers knew how to play off this dynamic. Failed bargainers would point out defects in quality and demand a discount, skillful bargainers would point out how their friend over in stall 35 had such and such rate and since you were good friends you were sure they had the best deal, this put the onus on your haggling partner to prove what kind of a good friend they were. Of course the longer you stay in this kind of culture the worse you would feel if you didn’t take some of the deals your new “friends” were offering.

In business dealings the friend discount is still alive and well even in business to business negotiations. Recently I began working with Siemens again had made an initial offer to Siemens Management Institute based on an existing friendship and had concluded that the friend rate was already given and all hunk-dory vis-a-vis relationship based negotiations. Not only was I wrong I actually adopted the e-mail that came in between workshop 2 and 3 asking for a discount as a case study for future cross cultural training as address to points in business negotiations: 1. discounts are never asked for at the beginning of the letter 2. the friend discount is alive and well.

So I now take it upon myself to quote a little higher with Siemens on anything. The reason? So that I can afford to give a friend discount when it comes up. I recently introduced a colleague to them to deliver an intensive business writing course and central piece of advice. Charge them at least 1,000 RMB more so that you can give that 1,000 RMB away as a friendly gesture when they ask about it. You might say, “John, does this mean that you just charge more to anyone because you’ll just give them a discount later?” This answer is, “It depends.”

Depends on what? Well here is where it gets interesting. A few months ago during a TTT we held here with Dr. Greenaway we tried out an activity called “have you ever?” and the question was had a business negotiation in China. We then split off into quadrants of those who had or hadn’t and by whether you did or didn’t like the experience. A fair number of us (including some of our clients) wound up in the have and don’t like it side of things. When asked why we said none of us liked running the risk of damaging a friendly relationship. So what does it mean? Let’s try and wrap our heads around this a minute…

When you have someone who is effectively just a cog in the machine or a vendor friend discounts are pretty common. As you begin to build up friendships with decision makers you will find those friend discounts slowly decreasing. Why? Because it is seen as risking the friendship to ask for a discount particularly if the rate seems fair. So the paradox here is that friends give strangers “friend discounts” but friends, for the sake of the friendship, don’t give discounts. I do however give freebies frequently. Why? Because it shows a commitment to the friendship and if I have the time and interest then all the better.

Anthropology 101 introduced the notion of reciprocity. China business 101 ought to put serious business negotiations and reciprocity hand in hand.


Is it business or is it personal?

This week I am in the process of writing a number of proposals and issuing contracts to be reviewed in what appears to be a set-up for a very busy 3rd quarter. What is interesting from a work perspective is that the majority of this busy-ness is coming from new and unexpected sources. My traditional clients, who have been fairly quiet this year, represent a smaller portion of the workload than at this time last year. So what is driving this sudden boom? Apparently personal referrals from folks I would describe as friends.

I recently sat down for a day of training on the Cartus model for cross cultural training for relocating expatriates. I will be representing Cartus in South China (a part of the new business parade) and had a chance to go over their material with super-star cross cultural trainer Dana Breitenstein. Dana made an interesting metaphor that I had heard before from Chris Barclay (who also cites Dana as source material) that compares our western (especially US) cultural model to the Asian model is like comparing an orange and a coconut. Using this metaphor Dana points out that in western culture we find it easy to compartmentalize our lives into different segments, like portions of an orange, a model that is often used in things like western time management. The coconut of course has a tough outer layer to crack through and inside everything runs together.

Orange slices and coconut juice...

I find this model somewhat challenging. Coming from an Italian-American family background (another potential hybrid orange/ coconut culture) I found the business model in Italy fascinating with the emphasis on small family run businesses that operate in an ongoing guild culture. Work is so integrated into the family mindset that there is an Italian expression that roughly translates into “The first generation builds, the second generation thrives, and the third generation wastes.” An interesting way to think of a business cycle and that most small businesses are family run for about three generations before they tank. The Italian mindset seems to have blurred the size of the orange chunks, but there seems to be a clear division in social roles and responsibilities. So maybe it is a coconut flavored orange hybrid?

Working as a largely independent contractor (building a small business that helps other people be independent contractors) I have to wonder how much of my life operates from an orange perspective or coconut perspective. In the past couple of years my ability to make money has largely been tied to my ability to create and leverage positive word of mouth. I recently went through the process of being vetted to work with the corporate education arm of Duke University and found the process to be an interesting study in how we divide up our personal and private lives.

As I collected referral letters and asked various past clients to keep an eye out for a letter from inquiring administrators I began to look at how I classified these people. By and large I have sat down and had dinner and talked about family with virtually all of them. In some cases I have met their family and they have met mine. The fact that I work with my wife somewhat accelerates this process. While I drew great reviews none of these letters and referrals made reference to these human connections, a fact I accepted as part of the business world. In other words a neat orange slice known as my professional background and professional relationships.

When Michael tells Sonny it's strictly business we assume it's the orange model...

What surprises me is that at the same time I was going through the very American process of being vetted based on referrals I was also being promoted by a friend internally at another company. I didn’t ask to be promoted internally but on his own steam my friend asked for an outline to my cross-cultural program, took it to their management institute, and proceeded to tell them that I was next best thing since sliced bread in someone else’s kitchen. I now have a busy calendar of work with them in the coming months. I am pretty sure he didn’t sell me based on the merits of our friendship but rather on the quality of my work from past projects. Which asks the question, “at what point do we begin to translate our coconut qualities into orange slice context?”

What this makes me wonder then is “When I begin to blend the nicely compartmentalized sections of my life like work, family, and friends is it because I am doing business in a coconut world or is the world of small business inherently more coconut like?” The reality for me at this point is that a coconut world is better in the start up phase (again from my point of view other people may experience something else), but is there a point where it becomes a liability? I would argue that the entrepreneurial model espoused by web 2.0 thinkers is that the new business world is about inherently blending those lines. Working in your passion, creating a loyal tribe, focusing on the 20,000 people needed to grow a highly personalized brand versus marketing to everyone and hoping to be the next big thing. By being accessible all the time and making us the brand we are beginning to erase the idea of our work persona and our private persona being overly different. It will be interesting to see where this trend takes us in the coming years.

Any ideas of this trend? Sound off in the comments…

“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads…”

I have been thinking a bit about how we measure success. I’ll write more about that in a later post, but the train of thought got me started thinking about why I chose to work and live in China instead of back home. After all it isn’t what a lot of people chose to do, it is taking the path less traveled. Actually though I realize I know a lot of people who fall under the entrepreneur label here in China and the reality is that we left the roads most people take a long time ago.

Doc Brown was a lone nut, but a lone nut with a flux capacitator...

I think about what if I had done something simpler and “stayed home” at times like these, times that are punctuated with a lot more of the grunt work. Recently my key client had their funds reduced and a number of clients have pushed their projects back to the second half of the year and I am suddenly filling my days trying to refill my calendar. It is times like these that I wonder, “what if I had stayed home to do something like this?”

That’s when I check what a “principal consultant” in the US at a firm that does the organizational cultural work and leadership development should have on their résumé. One firm in California had their JD showing I would need at least two to four years more of school and preferably another couple years of work experience before they would even look at my résumé much less put me on the short list of hires.

So stand back folks I am going to be working hard at stringing together some base hits and grinding out a couple of tough months of hard work to get to the “second half of the year” that shines on the horizon. In light of the recent Labor Day holiday the hard work seems acceptable and I think I’ll stick with Doc Brown’s famous line about roads while I continue to do things on my own terms.

Let’s get “Mediapathic”

If you google “Mediapathic” or run it through you’ll at best get a web handle or twitter name. So let’s give credit where credit is due “mediapathic” as I know and use it comes from the Neal Stephenson book Zodiac and it is his term not mine. In Zodiac he uses the term to refer to creating images and situations that register across the evening news and creating a lasting impact with viewers, usually creating a positive impact for your side and a negative impact for your adversary. As the key protagonist is an environmental activist his idea of “mediapathic” imagery makes industrial polluters look like villains and environmentalists look like heroes. In real life it is like getting someone like former BP top-executive Tony Hayward to say, “I want my life back” in front of the whole world.

You can see Mr. Hayward here: (If you’re in China you’ll need VPN access)

We now live in a time that being mediapathic is a business hard skill that is going to set apart the have and have-nots. If you’re in business for yourself and/or growing a small and medium sized business being mediapathic is what gets people to find your product, see your services, buy your books, download your music and make sure that you have money in the bank. I want to share a few stories and a few links through this post to give you an idea about what I am suggesting.

There are a couple of events last week that got me running down this track. The first is a chat with my friend and former colleague Jesse Covner in Suzhou. Jesse left the consulting business to take a director role at a company that produces role-playing games. You can check out the kind of games they produce over at their web-site they sound fairly creative and certainly have their demographic of gamers. Jesse is enrolling himself in the world of facebook in order to start promoting the company and their products after having registered a VPN and swallowed his distaste for social media. I suspect he will be on twitter soon enough. Arguably if you are doing business where your primary target group is in the US it is a must to be visible there.

Beyond being visible though there is a growing need to be mediapathic. When I talked to Jesse he had just come back from Las Vegas after attending a massive role-playing convention for people who make games. The story he shared that struck me as being most interesting was that at one point he sat in on a panel about manufacturing role-playing games in the US and ended up in a debate with the CEO of the group that produces “The Settlers of Catan” on two sides of the debate about producing abroad (particularly China) or in the US. It seems that Klaus Teuber actually all but called Jesse out as being “unAmerican” producing in China. Jesse of course represents the little guys not a multi-million dollar gaming company with the profit margins to produce in the US.

I sincerely wish that Jesse had been able to record it and have it on youtube, shared on facebook, and tweeted in the moment. How mediapathic would it have been to be David standing up for the little businesses trying to make it by standing up to the giant Goliath asking little businesses to slash any profits they have and effectively slash their wrists at the same time. Mr. Teuber’s point would be mediapathic tackling Wizards of the Coast but against Jesse and small business looks and sounds like bullying. It also makes Jesse a champion for the little guy and the perosn you want in your corner standing up for your product.

Let’s summarize for a minute. Do you have a small business or work in the field of helping other small businesses like game designers. Use the new media of the internet and social marketing to get your message out there to as many people as possible. Be on youtube (or in China youku), be on facebook and gathering fans and likes and be on twitter collecting followers. Be in their face. But also choose your message carefully and keep it balanced to get your followers.

I have been promoting a couple of open courses in the early part of this year. To mixed results at this point. I am trying to find the way to create the most mediapathic impact in my industry. One standard though is to create a flyer introducing your course and a good flyer should have good images. A picture says a thousand words and having access to good pictures makes a big differences if you can get people to see your flyer. You can see the flyer I designed for a reviewing course up at Roger’s website for reviewing. You’ll notice the pictures are pictures of people I have trained doing reviews but not of Roger in action. This is not for trying. If you look around the web for pictures of Roger that are mediapathic you’ll come up short. Not because Roger isn’t in actuality one of the worlds great trainers (he is) or that he isn’t the world’s foremost expert on reviewing (he is that too) but because Roger hasn’t developed this part of his brand. To be fair Roger is an established brand in the training world and won’t lose any business for this oversight. His website is, btw, a great trainer resource but highly un-mediapathic.

Take in comparison the website my friend and former colleague Andy Anderson put together. Andy, if you haven’t met him, is a great trainer and an all around great guy. His website is stellar example of being mediapathic. The photos are top class and the lay out is both intuitive and interesting. It makes me want to make a knock off site, that’s how cool it is. If I was looking for pictures to promote Andy in a flier I would immediately have access to resources to do so and the material would be noteworthy. To be fair Andy is a graduate of the ClarkMorgan system and in the China training world they made some of the biggest inroads into being mediapathic. Which is part of the reason Andy has some outstanding images there.

If you want to learn from Andy here, don’t count on images of you that are mediapathic happening without fore-thought. Have the sense to have a talented person nearby with a camera or recording device at times that you will stand out. I have tried working with numerous accidental photos taken during training events and inevitably people who didn’t know better had highly un-mediapathic images as a result. You can’t use photos of your great training session when people look bored. It only takes one bored person to make an otherwise mediapathic image a disaster.

I noticed last week when I put up Ayawawa’s picture I got a couple readers who just wanted to know who the Asian girl was touching her hair. It appealed to a certain demographic. Last year we worked with a German (now Japanese) company in Zhuhai to create a local corporate culture. Their CEO pointed out that working with an American was interesting because Americans inevitably have a sense of marketing that Germans seem to lack. I pointed out over dinner this weekend that Germans know how to market to other Germans. They created a set of interesting visuals promoting their “corporate values” internally and needed to target two groups with mediapathic images. The local Chinese needed pictures of people they knew to resonate, for the Germans at the plant the CEO hand picked images that would resonate on the English language posters. Talking with the Germans they all strongly responded to the picture taken for the Honesty poster. Below are a couple of examples:

This young women is reminding employees about Honesty on this poster

Chosen for being the contrasting image to Honesty this picture resonates

The CEO said he picked the English language picture after carefully reviewing which employee looked the least Honest of the bunch. As a result the expat team took notice of the picture and started modelling Honesty as a value more frequently. It was a clever choice of a mediapathic image to drive for results with a target group. That would be the final point I would make about being mediapathic, you can’t expect everyone to register your image the same way but you have to appeal a certain group and that group is who matters.

Seth Godin, noted blogger, author, and business thinker, suggests that anyone wanting to be in business for themselves needs about 20,000 people to be in their “tribes” circle of influence to live comfortably. If we think about our friend Jesse if he has 20,000 people following his products and snatching up the latest product he and his company will be doing fairly well. That doesn’t mean Jesse needs to reach everyone on facebook or twitter only a core group or maybe two. In his case he wants to appeal to game developers who want his access to cheaper methods of production, his publishing networking and to the game buyers who trust in his opinion about what is both a fun and interesting game to invest their money in. In other words Jesse needs a tribe of about 20,000 role-players who want to buy his materials for any given product line that he puts out. He then needs to craft a mediapathic image for those 20,000 people and get it out to them.

Here are a few questions to think about in creating your mediapathic (and highly necessary) message:
1. Is their an outlet for your message? Literally what media are you using to get people to fall in love with your message?
2. Have you created an image that will register an impact? Have you gotten someone with talent to be there at the right time to choose the right image to move through your media?
3. Have you considered your audience for the image. Your targeting a select group or just scattering your message to whoever might show a passing interest?

What took so long or what was I afraid of?

Ego Alert! This entry is very self-centered.  You’ve been warned.


In looking over my calendar I realized today that it seems very likely that I will be booked all the way up to Christmas this year.  While I am sharing billing for a few of those programs with my friends at the German Chamber of Commerce they are entirely predicated on my getting out there and making the business happen.  It seems likely that being busy will continue into January and hopefully cap off with a trip to Uruguay in February, also for a work project.  I will in those five month generate more personal income than I earned working for someone else from 2004-2006 (to be fair I worked for peanuts in 2004) combined.  If we add up income generated from March 2010 through February of 2011 we can add 2007 to that figure.  So why on earth did I take so long to work for myself?

The first answer is the obvious one, skill set.  I made the choice that a lot of people should make early in their careers to invest in  jobs and training that help develop the skills needed to be good at a craft.  If we give room on my life’s timeline for a formal education and sometime in a journeyman system by the time I left full time employment (ie working for someone else) at the end of 2007 I had all the skills I would need to be my own production line , sales & marketing department, and R&D department.  So what happened?  Why did it take nearly two full years to stop committing the majority of my energy to other people’s tasks and focus on what mattered to me?

Rather than be direct let’s flashback to this weekend.

As I kicked off a two day workshop on leadership on Saturday I went through a traditional ritual of letting participants express their concerns and hopes for the workshop they were about to join.  Since we were conducting the workshop in Chinese I saw a fair amount of concerns about attending a two day lecture in Chinese conducted by an American.  To be fair I have a thick American accent when I speak mandarin and unless I have warmed up I am a little slow in mandarin the first morning.  So in essence what they are saying is “we have heard you talk and we aren’t sure this is going to go the way we would like it to.”  It’s easy to take that moment and feel like I am being criticized, because in that moment I am.  It is easy to take that moment and let it define your emotional state for the next two days and let it torpedo your chances of doing something great.

I would like to point out that at the end of the workshop the workshop evaluation scored me at a 4.38 out of 5.  In training terms this is a solid A, not quite an A+ but certainly better than an A-.

So why didn’t I let the moment when everyone in the group volunteered that they saw a significant chance of failure define my feelings?  In part because there is a mounting sea of evidence that my level of Chinese doesn’t change my ability to create successful training results.  In larger part because I have reframed one of my fundamental fears and concerns, the fear of criticism.

Reframing is a useful technique of actively looking for a new or different perspective.  Here is how I have reframed this fear, “people make these little critiques and express these concerns because, in some way, to them the results matter.”  So long as I continue to do things that are meaningful to people these sorts of “criticisms” are actually a sign that my work and the result it creates matters to the critic.  Once you begin to feel like what you are doing matters and is meaningful it makes taking the steps to ensure you continue working much easier to take.  It becomes a virtuous cycle of feeling engaged in your work, by being engaged creating more work, by creating more work that is meaningful staying engaged thus creating more work and so on.

So getting back to the original question… why did it take two years to get focused on my own tasks?  To be perfectly blunt there was a global economic crisis that threw a curve ball at me, but that was never really the cause.  After all we did not feel the impact of the crisis in China until October, but out the gates in 2008 I was trying to work with other people.  By March of 2009 when China was past the worst of the recession (yes it was that fast) I had already put my primary focus on working for someone and stayed focused there for another 6 months or more.

The thing about being afraid of criticism, is it is hard to hear that you are not as bright as you think you are.  After all if you fail there is an organization in place to absorb some of the worst shocks of your failure.  Unless you do something criminal odds are that failure will not result in dismissal and missing your next meal ticket.  If you carry the weight for yourself there is not an opportunity to hide from failure and criticism behind the walls of other people and an established organization.

It took a moment (two years) to get that what I was doing mattered and for that fear to supersede the fear of being criticized.  There were people out there that felt strongly enough about it to encourage or discourage my success.  I had as Seth Godin put it, found my tribe.  Once I knew my tribe was there it was a matter stepping on to the path of my choosing and accepting that people wanted to tell me that they cared about the results of my work.  The next time you find yourself distracting your self from doing what you need  to do (in my case working I kept trying to work for other people) look to see if it isn’t a fear of criticism holding you from making a full commitment to yourself and the people in your tribe who want you to succeed.

The Circle of Excellence

In NLP there is a “simple” technique for creating a positive anchor that let’s you choose to be in a resourceful state when facing problems.  As an independent consultant I often argue the value of surrounding yourself with people who are pretty damn smart and willing to talk about your work.  These are the people who make up your own “circle of excellence.”

From what I can tell the biggest obstacle facing other independent consultants/trainers is that they get stuck doing it on their own.  Whether it be ego or a fear of inherent competition there is not much willingness to talk about current projects, branding ideas, or more importantly what is blocking them from breaking through and being hyper successful.

On Friday I gave a presentation at the German Chamber on how to create employee engagement.  Being perfectly honest this is a presentation that even 1 year ago I would not have had the least idea how to start.  As of this post it is the branding direction that I have chosen for my own business growth.  So what happened that brought about this change in business direction?

Firstly I had, since I left my old company at the end of 2007, needed a new way to talk about my work that separated me from my old work identity while letting me tap into a skill set I had spent nearly five years developing in China at pay rate that would make a share cropper laugh at my poor choice of jobs.  More urgently since I shared last names with my former employer and needed to not be confused in the minds of my clients I needed a way to stand apart.

In brief I ventured into several other companies looking to leverage my skills into other people’s brands and it simply didn’t work.  I am still however, attached to ALTEC one of the oldest training brands in China.  In late 2009 we met with Scott Simmerman a simulation guru from the US who has several simulations that are licensed by ALTEC when he was passing though for a presentation in Hong Kong on Engagement.

In 2010 ALTEC made it’s official move into the realm of engagement.  This was interesting as it gave me a chance to become more familiar with my wife’s work on engagement that she had begun in 2007, including a new version of her Employee Engagement Survey.  By the second half of this year I was moving away from ALTEC but interest in engagement was still growing strong.  I had found my market niche even as ALTEC began to choose a path that will ultimately see them shuttering their doors in less than 2 years when their biz license terminates.

Back to the present and my presentation.  Sino Associates is clearly not founded on any one business idea (think about companies you associate with English training or cross cultural skills) other than it’s own dual platforms.  That said Willbe and I are both adherents to a philosophy of improving management and management systems by focusing on engagement.  So as I sat down to draft the presentation I was presenting ideas that had been introduced to me many sources over the years many of whom are still present in my daily life, or a regular part of my “circle of excellence.”

As an independent service provider that led me to understand certain key points for building your circle.  Find people who:

  1. have their ear to the ground.  Find people who are interested in new ideas and are moving forward.
  2. are able to think in ways you don’t about your old problems.  This of course means they have heard your history and skills and use it as a framework for addressing ideas.
  3. are happiest when they share what they know.  Some people are perpetually wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches, they have a compulsion to teach.
  4. have their ego in check and can give and take feedback without being defensive or becoming know-it-alls

If you can find people who fit this description you are on your way.  If you want to maintain this circle there are certain steps you have to be prepared to follow through on:

  1. Bring these people into your world.  If you are like me and you do events and workshops that means taking the initiative to bring these people in on projects.
  2. Work with their ideas.  Actually think about how to apply the thoughts they give you beyond face value and make adjustments to your own work with them there with you
  3. Give them feedback about how their ideas worked out for you.  Be respectful if they don’t work out while identifying would did work and how it can be applied in the future.  Be grateful when they do work and give credit it’s due.

A key part to the Service Provider business platform is in fact giving people a chance to build their own circle of excellence.  It is one of the culture initiative I will be spear heading over the coming years as I believe it is a fundamental part of succeeding as an independent operating and a key part of what drives people away from working for ego driven mid-size firms and into the field as independent providers.

I’ll share how this goes in the future.

On! Cool…

As I started blogging yesterday I simultaneously started a account.  They were gracious enough to send me a message saying that my slides for Think Like a Leader from my November NLP sharing session had been posted on their home page.

There are a couple things to be said about this.  I am testing out Slide Share as a step to look at their services as a way of promoting ideas and developing a web identity with their services.  As a trainer I design a lot of slides some of which are not limited by non-disclosure agreements with clients particularly marketing and sharing session slides.

So far I have 130 hits on the slide set with only 4 hours on the front page.  I really wish I had left my contact information in those slides and will make a note to do so in the future…

The other thing to add there is the content of the slides.  The Action Logic material is clearly derived from my LDF certification in England in 2006 and represents a bit of a my spin on spiral development.  Sadly I didn’t put the transcript up for the slides and the animations don’t shine through as a result of their formatting.  There is a bit more humor to the slides that is missing as result.

Overall though it is exciting to see the additional publicity.  I would as an independent trainer recommend Slide Share with the caveat to keep your contact information that you want shared in any slide show you put on their service.