Americans negotiating in China must understand the Chinese decision making process.
One of the difficulties negotiating Win-Win deals in China is widespread usage of gate-keepers (assistants and other access-controllers) in Chinese business.
Unlike their American counterparts, Chinese access-controllers often take on the appearance of important decision-makers, when in fact they are low-ranking functionaries.
The American gatekeeper says, "He's unavailable, would you like to leave a message?"
In China, you are more likely to hear, "He's leaving the country on business tomorrow and you need to send a detailed proposal including technical specs on your product or service by noon."
Gatekeeper as Messenger
The trick to handling gatekeepers in China is to understand that they are one-way, one-time messengers directly to your decision-makers office - and treat them that way.
You can't and should not negotiate with a gatekeeper - but you needn't obey him either. He wants a proposal that, according to him, will go right to the top people.
Treat this for what it is - a one shot delivery system. Craft your message accordingly.
Gatekeepers as information sources
Is he treating his boss with imperial deference? You'll be expected to do the same.
Is he hostile or condescending to foreigners? That probably means his boss is too.
Is he an informed, helpful, professional facilitator with the authority to begin and maintain a business relationship? That indicates his organization may make a good partner.
Most of all, the gatekeeper will tell you exactly what the company wants from you - he just wants it the next day, for free.
How can We handle this?
In many cases, the gatekeeper is a frustrated, neglected, disrespected poor wretch, toiling away in obscurity in the shallow end of the bureaucratic pool.
A little attention may go far. "I need your advice - how have past Western suppliers / partners handled this?" "How does your boss like to see information - tech specs, financials data or detailed explanation?" "What kind of proposals has he been happy with before?" "What would you do if you were part of our team?"
Dealing with gate-keepers
- Identify what they want. HINT: It's probably not a transaction. Chinese gatekeepers are notorious for acquiring IP, plans and big-picture technical data. This can work for you or against you.
- Control the content of your proposal or message. Figure that whatever information you provide will be lost and used against you. If it's advertising or a semi-public whitepaper - no problem. If it's highly sensitive or proprietary data, then that is a problem.
- Information is a two-way street. Talk about "WE" a lot, and find out what others have done right in the past. Play on his desires to do a good job. "I don't want to waste your boss' time...", "I consider this a tremendous opportunity and I'm nervous about making a mistake..." Let him fill in the blanks on who makes the decisions, what their criteria will be. Try your best to get names and titles. If you can get him talking about the decision-making process, that's a win.
- Don't invest anything you aren't afraid of losing - and that includes TIME. Gatekeepers are a direct, one-way conduit to the real decision-maker, and should be treated as such. Service providers in China have learned not to spend the time crafting detailed proposals - even outlines. Most of the consultants I know have a two page introduction prepared that they customize for prospects in China. Don't outline projects, provide timetables or analyze problems for free. Local service providers (probably related to the boss in some way) will get the actual contract based on your assessment.
- Know your limits - and know when to walk away. If the gatekeeper was sent to steal information then this is never going to turn into a deal. Sometimes the most important piece of information is that the negotiation is not worth the time or effort.