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BUSINESS & TECH

Doing Business in China: Got an Appointment? Don’t Be So Sure in China’s World of Fluid Schedules

By Doug Young

An occurrence right before the weeklong National Day holiday reminded me how differently people view the concept of appointments here in China, and how the local approach can cause scheduling headaches and even nightmares. In this particular case we were planning an online event featuring three prominent speakers talking on a hot topic in China’s high-tech realm.

About a week or two before the event, one of the speakers, the most prominent of the group, informed us he had to drop out. He explained apologetically that his schedule was busier than he had anticipated. Never mind that he had previously agreed to do the event, and that marketing materials had already been sent out with his name featured prominently.

Then just a day or two before the event, one of the two remaining speakers also informed us he was dropping out due to a scheduling conflict. So our grand event with three prominent experts was suddenly reduced to only a single expert, though one of the two who bowed out graciously did offer to give us his thoughts on a recording. Perhaps feeling guilty, the other no-show also offered to do a similar event at a later date where he would be the only speaker.

This kind of last-minute cancellation used to be a hallmark of major events in China during my earlier reporting days, and even became something of a joke among the foreign correspondent crowd. I first discovered the phenomenon about a decade ago when I went to cover an event featuring the CEOs of many of the top internet names at that time. We reporters generally love such events, as they allow us to personally meet many of these normally inaccessible executives and chat briefly at a single event.

Based on my opening to this column, anyone reading can probably guess what happened when I went to the event. My memory isn’t completely intact, but I recall that none of the big internet CEOs bothered to show up, and the event ended up being a series of discussions featuring under-populated panels of mid-level managers whom I had no interest in meeting.

It’s not hard to see where this kind of attitude towards appointment-keeping comes from, given China’s recent past when communications were poor and the whole concept of time was completely different. As recently as the 1980s and ’90s, people often stopped in on others unannounced, both personally and professionally, partly because it was difficult to make appointments due to the poor state of telecommunications. If the person they were seeking happened to be there, then an appointment was born. Whether or not the person being called on was busy with other things was less important, especially if the person making the call was important in terms of status. It also helped that in those days people weren’t all that busy to start with.

What Appointment?

During my first China journalism job in the early 1990s, I quickly learned that making appointments was often a futile endeavor. I would do my best to contact a factory and set up a meeting with its manager, only to get there and discover they had no idea I was coming. But they would always try to accommodate me and I usually got what I wanted, just not exactly in the way I imagined. Towards the end of that job, I began just calling up people on the day I was in town to see if I could stop by. Sometimes they said no, but more often they told me to swing on by and everything worked out fine.

Fast forward to the present, when the concept of appointments has come a long way from those early days but still has some ground to make up. I asked some of my local business contacts why people sometimes seem to take such appointments so casually, and the most common answer was wrapped up in the concept of face. It seems the more important someone perceives you or your event to be, the more likely they are to keep an appointment. One contact told me how he once went to a job interview set for 2 p.m., only to wait seven hours before finally being seen. Apparently his stature wasn’t quite high enough to merit a prompt interview, even though he ultimately got the job.

Such an attitude also occurs in the West to some extent, though at least in the West people will simply find polite ways to refuse if they think a meeting or event isn’t up to their own status level. Obviously breaking appointments does happen from time to time in the West as well. But more often that happens when something really important does come up that can’t be delayed or rescheduled, or at least that’s what others tell me and is generally a rule I follow.

The good news is that you’re not completely defenseless in the appointment game, and my contacts said there are several things you can do to reduce the chances of no-shows. It’s always good to play to the person’s ego by telling them how central they are to the appointment, be it a meeting or a full-blown event. Similarly, it doesn’t hurt to play up the influence of the event or meeting itself. One contact also pointed out it’s good to regularly remind the person, which creates a sense of obligation. Financial incentives such as speaking fees might also help, especially among mid-level people who would be more likely to appreciate such gestures.

At the end of the day, nearly everyone I queried agreed the situation is rapidly improving in China in this regard, especially for smaller meetings involving just two or three people, where no-showing is an increasing rarity. But for those special instances where the attendance of one or two VIPs can really make or break the gathering, regular communication, ego-stoking and also perhaps a little exaggeration are probably some of the best tools to make sure such big-name invited guests stick to the script.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to DougYoung@caixin.com.

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