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01 Mar 2021 Updated 24 Mar 2021

Grasp of cultural nuances essential in overseas business ventures

The Straits Times Ovais Subhani

Director of Guava Amenities Mr Gabriel Tan.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Regardless of how good your product and how solid your business plan is, success when pursuing a business venture overseas depends on quickly coming to grips with the new market's cultural nuances.

Understanding how to approach local officials, developing lasting relationships with your partners and vendors, and winning the loyalty and trust of your local staff is critical when setting up business in a market that is much less developed than Singapore.

It is precisely in these matters that Singapore Business Federation's (SBF) market specialists, such as Ms Amy Wee, provide assistance to Singapore's small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) when they land in Vietnam.

This type of hand-holding, of course, comes on top of the support that GlobalConnect @ SBF provides companies looking to expand overseas.

Ms Wee, country head of GlobalConnect @ SBF in Vietnam, has spent 12 years in Ho Chi Minh City.

She said that while business plans and products can be tuned to local requirements, businesses should also understand the differences in work ethic and the complexity of unfamiliar social norms even before they set up their first meeting.

"There is a misconception. We think that what was successful here in Singapore should work in other markets as well. But that is not always the case," she said.

For example, in Vietnam no one says "no" to anything.

They will rather tell you that they will try, which does not mean "yes", added Ms Wee, who before joining the SBF had worked for various Vietnamese companies, including agriculture firm Hapro.

"To a Singaporean, if someone says 'I will try', it means the other person has agreed to what you asked for. But most of the time, that may not be the case in Vietnam."

This kind of miscommunication turns finding the right local business partners or hiring trustworthy staff into daunting tasks.

Most Singaporeans also believe that business is business, but in Vietnam, focusing solely on business talk with prospective partners or clients will not lead to a lasting relationship, said Ms Wee.

So she helps Singapore companies in bridging such communication gaps and ensures that both sides are comfortable talking to each other.

While GlobalConnect offers SMEs a structured pathway to their overseas ventures, not all successful ventures by Singapore companies have followed it.

For example, Guava Amenities co-founder and director Gabriel Tan approached Ms Wee directly and asked for her help in getting a large delivery to a customer in Ho Chi Minh to clear Vietnamese Customs, where it had been stuck for some time.

Going through the clearance documentation in Vietnamese, Ms Wee realised that Guava was missing some of the documents needed and that Mr Tan was also required to notarise them.

She then took the documents to the Vietnamese embassy in Singapore herself. She spoke to the Customs aides there and asked the ambassador to help out.

The documents were notarised within two days and Mr Tan finally got his shipment cleared.

Mr Tan sought Ms Wee's help again to centralise Guava's fragrance production in Vietnam.

The firm, which supplies guest amenities to leading hospitality chains across South-east Asia and beyond, has now acquired a significant presence in Vietnam.

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.