India Business Expert Gunjan Bagla Talks Straight About the Subcontinent

Everyone, it seems, has business in India these days. Americans are exposed to the Indian public on a regular basis, mostly through customer service interactions, whether we realize it or not. Multinationals outsource IT, engineering, customer service, and a variety of other functions to Indian contractors or subsidiaries. American freelancers compete with Indians for a variety of jobs, including graphic design, content writing, and computer programming.

Business exposure with the subcontinent in general continues to increase. India is a powerhouse, and she’s here to stay.

Indians may appear more accessible to Americans than, say, Chinese, because of our frequent interactions with residents through various business sectors. But those interactions are only a sliver of the whole business story.

India’s intricate array of cultures befuddles even longtime Western expats. Business Pundit interviewed India expert, author, and consultant Gunjan Bagla to find out how Americans can conduct business in India with minimal hassle.

1. What are the most common misconceptions that Americans have around doing business with India?

Many American businesspeople assume that India is the next China
and that they can apply their learning about China to this country. This is simplistic and misleading at best and catastrophic to success for many.

Also some Americans try to extend their learning of India from Indian-American immigrants that they might have met (such as co-worker or a physician). Indians in India live and work in a very different culture from the United States; their buying habits, their choice of employer, their communication skills are shaped by the local milieu. Just because many Indians speak English does not mean that they think and act like Americans.

The third mistake is to treat India as a monolith. Actually India is more diverse than the United States. With 23 official languages, several major religions, a class-based society and tremendous geographical and historical diversity, today’s India is a complex maze.

You wouldn’t do business in Denmark in the same way as you would in Portugal. Yet Punjab Sikhs from northwest India may be far more different than Malayalam-speaking Nasrani Christians in the southern coastal state of Kerala than Danes are from Portuguese.

2. What have you found to be the biggest problems for Americans doing business with India?

Impatience is a vice when you think of India. There are huge profits to be made, but no quick money. Some American executives come to India for a quick fix; they are usually disappointed.

Perhaps the most successful American company in India since 1991 is General Electric. Its India CEO spent 14 years living in New Delhi, prior to retiring and returning to the U.S. Today GE sells $3 billion into India each year.

Some American behavior is perceived as arrogant by Indians; that never helps win friends or business. Most who are guilty of this don’t even realize what they are doing. It is important to have an assertive, biculturally smart advisor to point out when you might be running afoul of this boundary.

Meet Gen Z, Your New Co-Workers

In decades past, Indians were meek about their self-image. Seventeen years after economic liberalization began, executives, entrepreneur and officials in India are far more self confident.

3. How should Americans remedy these erroneous assumptions and problems?

In advance of a visit, American travelers should read some good books and perhaps watch a few movies. Besides my own book, I strongly suggest picking up a copy of the Loney Plant India guide, and any of the other good books about modern India. Those who appreciate history should read “A New History of India” by Prof Stanley Wolpert. Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding is a good movie that is emotionally accessible to Americans.

For business engagements, it is important to engage an appropriate advisor. I don’t mean an attorney or account necessarily, although you will surely need those functions as you move forward. But first you need to hire a biculturally savvy executive or consultant, one who has worked with India considerably in the last five years (since some aspects of the country have changed much recently).

Upon landing in India, it is important to get a good sense of the average Indian workday is like. You might not see that at your hotel or in the comfort of corporate conference rooms. Spend as much time among the rank and file of your colleagues or business partners in India. This will help you make informed decisions about what makes them tick. Or at least when your advisor suggests something that might initially seem outlandish, you will have a point of reference.

4. What have Americans been pleasantly surprised about?

Indians like America. According to the 2008 Pew Center study on global attitudes, 66% of Indians have a positive attitude toward the United States, as opposed to just 41% of Chinese.

This reflects in the popularity of American brands, American cultural icons, and an admiration of the American lifestyle. On a more personal level, most Americans find Indians to be hospitable and friendly and gracious hosts.

5. Any other words you’d like to share with readers?

If you stay for the long haul, follow the above advice and maintain an open mind, success in India is almost assured. The demographics and economics are immensely favorable. Many of your competitors will not do what I suggest above. You can win and enhance your lead over others.

Gunjan Bagla updates his blog regularly. Learn more about Amritt here.

Written by Drea Knufken

Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.