You know what they say: when in Korea, do it as the Koreans do. In my experience, Korean companies prefer to work with a local partner rather than a foreign one. So with the odds stacked against you, it’s vital that you make every impression count.
Relationships are key when doing business in Korea. This is because Koreans are inclined towards doing business with someone whom they trust. Tap into local networks: seek introductions from locals who are trusted in the industry. Once you’ve met with your potential clients, invest time getting to know them, truly understanding their needs. It’s common to entertain clients outside of work, so do arrange for dinners or drinks where appropriate to show your clients that you are committed to building a relationship with them.
Koreans are all about first impressions. If you come across as incompetent or disinterested during the first meeting, you likely won’t get a second chance from your clients. For instance, when asked a question you weren’t prepared for, resist the urge to say “I don’t know,” and instead say something like “I’ll do my research and get back to you on this.” And then make sure to follow up. Korean companies love it when you have a never-say-die attitude.
Koreans are a conservative bunch, so be on your best behaviour constantly. Avoid coming across as casual or rude. For example, wear a formal suit when you have a business meeting to attend. The Korean corporate world is also very hierarchical, so a lot of emphasis is placed on paying due respect to those in senior business positions. If you don’t know the appropriate Korean titles for the client you’re addressing, stick to “Sir” or “Ma’am”. When talking business over dinner, practise good table etiquette. Examples include taking the initiative to pour soju (a popular alcoholic beverage) for your clients, or using two hands for a handshake.
Language barriers are a real issue faced by many companies when doing business in Korea. Koreans prefer to speak in their native tongue where possible. Don’t walk into a meeting expecting everyone to speak English with you. To ease communications and make your clients more comfortable, hire a competent interpreter.
If you have the choice between meeting a client virtually or in person, always choose the latter. In Korea’s relationship-driven culture, you’ll find that this is much more effective in moving projects along and getting your clients to warm up to you. If you resort to emails or virtual calls, you might find your Korean clients less responsive.
That said, we are in the middle of a pandemic, and corporate culture in Korea has had to adapt. Now, there’s less entertainment and a shift towards contactless communication. To stand out despite the setbacks, be very specific in your proposals and presentations. Koreans love details, and if you speak too generally it might come across as lack of competence or expertise. When delivering virtual pitches, always remember to be specific and provide your clients with highly customised solutions to get them interested.
My last piece of advice is to focus on the “How.” Most Western companies make the mistake of diving deep into the “Why” without giving too much attention to the “How” when presenting to Korean clients. But Koreans are generally more interested in learning about the latter. So if you’re sharing success stories from other countries, always clarify how you achieved the results. Otherwise you will fail to impress or convince them.
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Head of Digital Marketing/Experience Business, Korea