Inge Hüsgen spoke to HGS Managing Director Gundula Schramm about the leap into the unknown, Chinese self-confidence and the art of relearning.
2010: Just arrived in Shanghai, and already an applicant interview on the schedule. Time is short, because the first projects are already at the starting blocks, and we are looking for Chinese coaches to get them going. The interview started at 10 a.m. and now it’s 12 noon. Only a few questions left, then we'll have lunch together before it's the next candidate's turn. But all at once the applicant's concentration diminishes, and our colleagues in the meeting room seem suddenly closed-lipped, their answers turn monosyllabic. No more eye contact, glances wander aimlessly around the table. As the conversation ends, around 12:15 pm, the uneasy mood holds. During the subsequent restaurant visit only banalities are exchanged. Back at the office our local staff gives us a dressing-down. The reason: we behaved rudely. Lunch starts at 12 o’clock at the latest. Everything else is a no-go in China - even if it means that the last ten minutes of a job interview have to be done afterwards. Today we’ve learned an important lesson: sometimes politeness comes before efficiency. It takes experience and intuition to balance both.
Mrs. Schramm, it was a veritable cold start that you accomplished with HGS Concept in 2010: Out of nowhere you built a branch in Shanghai where today five full-time employees and several freelancers are employed. How did it all begin?
In the beginning there was the project for a German automobile manufacturer in the premium sector. As soon as we had spontaneously agreed to go to China for our client, we frantically began our research. After all, China was completely new territory for all of us. Luckily we were supported by a young Chinese man who was recommended to us by a German professor. One of his former university students took over the organizational set-up in China without knowing us, got the necessary startup capital and meticulously provided us with all the information we needed for our decisions. A first, very positive experience: a recommendation from within a network can provide motivatation for enormous efforts to meet the expectations of the partner. Reliability among network partners is very important. Thanks to his support we were able to handle much of the work from Germany. So step-by-step we’ve built up our branch over there to serve our China-based clients.
How does one establish a company in this new kind of environment?
In China at the beginning we were active exclusively for German manufacturers. That is, clients who expected German quality over there as well. But we couldn’t find enough native Chinese-speaking coaches for that, due to our lack of a local network. So we carried out the first projects with our German colleagues. With a total of 2,000 coaching days on-site at Chinese car dealerships we supported almost all departments: from sales to marketing to after-sales. But in the long run that was not acceptable to our Chinese customers. The costs of travel and translation were simply too high in comparison to our local competitors. Partly for this reason we’ve started to offer a training program for Automotive Performance Coaches in China. Overall, I can say that it took three years until enough confidence had grown on the Chinese side, so that we were also commissioned by local companies. One needs patience for such a market entry, there may also be some difficult times and one must not give up too soon."
In the past decade, the automobile market in China has boomed so much that OEMs had to quickly provide a basic qualification for their dealership staff. But this has clearly changed over the last year: product knowledge alone is no longer enough. Nowadays in China one also has to actively sell a a car and strive for every customer. This development came more quickly than expected, we're dealing with a tremendously dynamic market. What evolved in Germany over many years, is happening in China within six to twelve months."
So, the situation in China has come into line with the one in Germany?
In a way, yes. However, this doesn’t mean that solutions for the German market can be transferred to China one-to-one. The self-confidence of Chinese customers has grown, no one there wants to have concepts from Germany imposed on them."
Having your own base in the country is certainly an advantage.
Precisely. During these five years we have developed a profile and have positioned ourselves successfully over there. Of course, we can draw on experiences from Germany, but we have to adapt the concepts to the local market. Take the used car business for example. We have the advantage of coming from an ‘old’ market and are familiar with developments which China is only now experiencing. Nevertheless, many cultural differences remain. For Chinese training and coaching participants it is sometimes difficult to adopt our suggestions. For example, to move away from thinking in the categories of 'right' and 'wrong', as we often see it. Sometimes ‘both/and also’ applies. Therefore we rely on programs that allow flexibility and we demonstrate their advantages for this rapidly changing market. But sometimes we have to say goodbye to our ideas, and put the ‘Chinese glasses’ on and accept that there are other ways to achieve goals. This makes things difficult on the one hand, on the other hand it is very interesting. There is no better school for the universally proclaimed change of perspective!
What are your expectations and your plans for the future in the Chinese market?
The most important challenges are likely to be in the area of qualifications. This has been characterized for quite some time in the development of local dealer networks. The manufacturers are facing an ever-growing task: If you want to train 4,000 sales people within a year, it quickly becomes clear that it won’t be classroom training only. In addition to quality standards, training is also a matter of volume. All-in-all this is good reason for us to develop training for Chinese employees in the dealer networks. Given the high number of participants, we therefore will also offer web-based learning and Life Online Training. In addition, we want to make further learning available to our own performance-oriented employees. Our goal is to continue building the team in China and to expand our portfolio for our clients.