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How British companies find clients and partners in China

by Alexandra Kimmons
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Virtual meetings

Virtual meetings and a strong social media presence can help build relationships in a market that has traditionally relied heavily on face-to-face meetings

When James Love was looking to expand his client roster to gain some Chinese clients, he bypassed the big cities of Beijing and Shanghai. Instead, the partner at law firm Womble Bond Dickinson took the initiative and reached out to 16 businesses in China’s smaller second-tier cities. “Because I was going outside the well-trodden paths, I got a very warm welcome,” he explains. Love says he was welcomed with open arms. In fact, ten of the businesses met with him and four went on to become his client.

As a service provider, Love says that his personal visits to China enabled him to build relationships that ultimately led to his success in finding long-term clients and partners.

Having a physical presence in China is very important. Often more so than many other territories because of the cultural value of face-to-face meetings and relationship building. For Ian Patterson, the quickest and easiest way to get on the ground in China for his company CoolLED – an LED illumination system – was through CBBC’s Launchpad Service

The Launchpad service employs a dedicated project manager in China that can hit the ground running, whilst the company undertakes the steps required to establish its own wholly foreign-owned enterprise (WFOE) in China,

Denby Pottery opened an office in Shanghai earlier this year after learning from experiences in the UK and South Korea. “We had to build a specific strategy for the China market,” explains Emma Zhou, Denby Pottery’s business development manager for China. It is essential to be flexible and adapt your market entry plan, she says.

Whilst opening a store or an office is a procedure many companies have to go through, finding and securing a trusted partner is in many ways much harder. Personal connection, mutual trust and commitment to the China market are essential for a strong and successful partnership.

Jack Porteous of Samarkand Global – a company connecting British brands to Chinese consumers – credits a strong foundation of trust with partners as being something that can help companies working internationally to weather crises such as Covid-19. Samarkand Global Limited has a team of 25 based in China to manage sales and customer service.

Mutal trust is incredibly important, says Patterson, especially when collaborating internationally. “You need to walk the walk with your resellers and prove that you are capable of supporting them even at a distance,” he says. “And it’s also important to be able to react quickly, as slow response times can leave a partner feeling unsupported and can ultimately erode trust,” he says.

It’s important to be able to react quickly, as slow response times can leave a partner feeling unsupported

Organisations including the CBBC run trade missions that introduce British companies to potential Chinese partners, and while these can save a lot of time and add a huge amount of value, they are often the first step on a long journey. Individual travel and one-to-one meetings are essential in the follow-up for both sides to learn more about each other and build trust.

“It’s a two-way selection,” says Zhou. “Companies looking to enter the China market need to find out who is reliable and responsible and who actually has the power to help you build your brand in China, as everyone is promising you the whole world,” she says.

In addition to identifying the key partners needed to get your business off the ground in China, it is also important to localise your customer service offerings when setting up in a new market.

“The differences between expectations in China and the UK, is that in China there’s a lot of pre-sale customer service that’s required, in addition to the usual after-sale support expected in the UK,” says Porteous.

After-sale support can also look different when operating internationally. CoolLED has set up stock reserves in China so that its resellers have rapid access to replacement devices, a move which both ensures clients are satisfied and proves to partners that their UK counterpart can be trusted to deliver, says Patterson.

Selling in China has also been influenced in recent years by the rise of e-commerce – something that’s become even more important following the outbreak of Covid-19. It is common for consumers in China to scout out products in brick-and-mortar stores before searching for the best prices online. However, the lockdown following Covid-19 has deprived consumers of these opportunities and caused a hit to sales for consumer goods such as perfume, which rely heavily on physical interaction during the purchasing process.

Denied the opportunity to try out products in-store, consumers are unwilling to take the risk of making a purchase and finding that they do not like the product. However, brands are finding innovative ways to try and de-risk purchases for consumers.

In China there’s a lot of pre-sale customer service that’s required, in addition to the usual after-sale support expected in the UK

One example of de-risking consumer purchases might be to develop sample-sized perfumes at a low price, with the logic that “people can try it low-risk, low-price, and then hopefully come back and buy a bigger full-price option a bit further down the line,” explains Porteous.

The impact of Covid-19 has further accelerated consumers’ reliance on recommendations by key opinion leaders (KOLs), says Porteous. Influencers are just one of the ways in which e-commerce is tied to social media as part of China’s emerging social commerce phenomenon: companies can also get in on the action by developing their own social media presence in China to communicate not only with potential customers but also with other industry experts and partners.

Patterson’s company, which produces specialised, high-tech equipment and would not traditionally be expected to have a social media presence, has nonetheless invested time and resources into developing its digital channels. By posting translated industry-specific content and thought-leading material that isn’t just product-based, CoolLED has been able to engage industry stakeholders on a broader level and start a discussion on how its products fit into the wider industry, as well as relevant topics such as sustainability.

Denby Pottery is also expanding its social media presence to try to further add digital touch points.  “Pottery and ceramics typically require in-person interaction with customers,” says Zhou. “It is only through holding and feeling a product that the customer can fall in love with it” she adds. Denby Pottery, therefore, focused first on developing the experience of shopping in-store and is now using social media to advertise this experience and tell its story online. “This demonstrates our authenticity and develops digital touch points that are still focused on the experience and the products’ key selling points,” she says.

Covid-19 is accelerating the development of digital services such as virtual trade missions, meet-the-buyers, and meetings but it will still be important for businesses to travel to China in person to demonstrate their commitment and develop relationships with partners once international travel restrictions have been lifted.

However, the dominance of e-commerce is a trend that had been building even before the world entered lockdown conditions and looks set to continue on an upward trajectory moving forward. Companies looking to maximise cross-border sales can learn from some of the tactics employed by international brands during Covid-19 in order to develop long-term e-commerce strategies that can continue building their business from a distance.

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