How Cultural Differences Influence Inbound Sales Enablement in China

By John-Patrick van Rensburg - July 17, 2018

Borders might be a human-made invention, but cultural differences aren’t. No two countries are the same, and past attempts to uniform different nations under one “culture” failed dismally.

If you get in a car in Amsterdam and drive to Paris, six hours later you would have gone through the length of two countries and could be sipping wine in a third in the shadows of the Eiffel tower. Not only would you have been in three countries in one day but three very different cultures.

The point is, a successful sales strategy designed for one country doesn’t transfer as easy as a quick drive, cultural borders are a much bigger reality than country borders. Fundamentally, you can design a plan of action based on a predetermined sales enablement strategy, but there’s no one size fits all solution available. What works in the USA won’t necessarily work in China.

Oxygen work with clients from all over the globe but are (at the time of writing this article) the only Platinum certified HubSpot partner in China, and indeed Asia. Needless to say, working in both China and Hong Kong has given us a unique insight into how inbound marketing and sales work in the region.

No doubt you’ve received some form of email advertising one or other product from China. And it was likely a hodgepodge of grammatical errors, with a lack of spacing or formatting that resembles what you'd see in the Western world. The sad part is that the products are probably excellent, but no one is going to take an email like that seriously.

The reverse is true when Western companies are marketing to China, it's a different landscape altogether.

Why are Western companies active in China? If you’ve followed the news the last two years, you’ll know that China is making a switch from an export manufacturing driven market to a consumer-driven market. But how you’d sell in the USA or Europe won’t necessarily work in China.

Sales & Marketing in China Today

  1. Smartphones are where it all happens.

    The bulk of information in China can be found on platforms like WeChat or Jinri Toutiao and an array of similar apps – apps which aren’t actively used in other countries. WeChat subscription accounts can contain a mix of content forms and is equally well setup for "guest blogging" practices.

    WeChat also recently introduced mini-programs that brings somewhat traditional sales activities directly to the public’s WeChat accounts. These programs facilitate convenient transactions and are used for both b2b and b2c sales.

    Much of the "chat" that is done using programs like Zendesk, or HubSpot, in the West, is all done within the WeChat platform. Often with recorded voice messages or calls directly from the WeChat accounts.

    Not having an effective WeChat sales channel in China and relying on webforms hosted outside of China is seriously harming your chances to succeed.

  2. Inbound marketing is alive and well in China; it just isn’t called inbound marketing. Marketing online using content, however, is still a relatively new concept for marketing and sales teams.

    The best companies have content strategies mixed with social media marketing (not Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat as it’s blocked in China) in place, and it's often very effective when done well.

    There has been a fundamental shift towards mobile marketing. The majority of b2c companies are increasing efforts to be featured online, with b2b companies slowly catching up.

    There’s now a mix between what we know as the "inbound methodology"
    and traditional Chinese relationship-based marketing strategies.

  3. Live streaming & KOLs are becoming more popular by the day in China. The general public is much more receptive to well-produced, attention-grabbing videos than most Western countries. Social media timelines are full of videos and ads that people are sharing. If you’re not doing video in China, you’re leaving money on the table.

    One of the key cultural factors behind this is trust, or lack-thereof. People initially only tend to trust other people in their "inner circle" in China. To find an answer someone "Google's it" in New York, whereas in Nanjing they probably WeChat a friend to uncover the answer.

    It seems that live streamers and KOL's (influencers) are acting as an extended "inner circle" online for many consumers, and in some cases have considerably more trust and clout than brands themselves. 

  4. Sales teams have basic training and content, but it’s often outdated and lacks inspiration. There’s often not much incentive to innovate, and those who do well in sales by taking the initiative don’t want to share the methods they developed to sell more. Sales culture is often more competitive than cooperative.

    This makes the need for a China-specific sales enablement plan particularly pertinent. Sales pitches need to be adapted and perfected continuously, figures compared in real time with tools like Databox and HubSpot, CRM’s kept up to date, and regular training and review meetings provided.

China Sales Solutions for the China Market

Regardless of where you find yourself in the world, you can’t copy-paste any kind of sales strategy when crossing international borders. You need up to date local knowledge and input to craft a working sales enablement strategy for the region you’re in. China is no different.

Based on our experience, Western companies that outsource sales to third party cold calling agencies in China don't do as well as those that build a small China inbound sales team. By working with a your own local team and instilling inbound sales best practices, and crucially, learning how to adapt your messaging for China from your local staff, you are more likely to succeed.

Be malleable, adapt to the local market conditions in China, but develop a systematic inbound sales program so that you can track and improve performance over time.


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About the Author

John-Patrick van Rensburg