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To grow your business in Asia, your network isn’t everything

To grow your business in Asia, your network isn’t everything

We’re proud to have just hit the 100,000 unique contacts mark in Cobra, our customised version of Salesforce. In Asia, these include people from engineers to CEOs in corporations across China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore – vital contacts to whom we sell products on our clients’ behalf. And we’ve personally met them all! 

Honestly, we’re quite proud of this. Not only does it mean we’ve been networking like crazy throughout our 30-plus years of operation, but that our teams on the ground have painstakingly transferred all those details from business card to CRM system.

But many people say to me: “So what if you’ve got a big network?! I want you to introduce me to the right people, not just anyone!” And who could argue with that?

Serious digging

When we take on a sales assignment for a western tech client, often we do know exactly the right person in Asia to approach. Sometimes, we’re an introduction away. Other times, we need to do some serious digging, reaching out to start new relationships.

In fact, when I was based in Tokyo 15 years ago, our network was modest. We didn’t even have a CRM system. All our contacts were in the form of business cards slotted into see-through A4 folders stored carefully in people’s drawers. 

Much of our work then was good, old-fashioned outreach. I remember I was once working on behalf of an American tech company and called the switchboard of a major Japanese corporation to try to get through to their intellectual properly department. Somehow, I managed to make friends with one of the mid-ranking managers and, thanks to that, we secured a seven-figure deal for our client two years later!

Decision-making process

So, knowing the right people to speak to is important. But so is the ability to get to know people. Needless to say, when you’re doing business in Asia, you have to speak the language, know the culture, and be good at building relationships.

Beyond that, however, you also have to understand the decision-making process –  figuring out who’s motivated by what and navigating the politics, particularly in large organisations.

I remember we were once driving a sales cycle in China for a British scaleup. The target customer had a board member personally involved, and we thought we were onto a good thing. But, on further investigation, we discovered this director was actually being side-lined by the main management team, which meant the project was going nowhere fast. Time to move on.

Constant flux

The other point about a network is that it’s in constant flux, so maintaining it is crucial.

People move between departments and companies all the time, and it’s easy to lose track of that if you don’t invest in your relationships. As my colleague Michal Waszkiewicz said in his Success through relationships blog last year, you often engage people midway through their careers and find they later become heads of departments, VPs and CXOs.

For instance, we struggled for a while to engage one particular company in Korea. But one day, a close contact from one of their rivals jumped ship to join them. Meeting people at that company suddenly became much easier!

Persistence and creativity

For effective business development in Asia, on top of building and maintaining a network, you also need a good deal of persistence and creativity to get to the right people and accelerate discussions.

One of our Tokyo team, working on behalf of a UK semiconductor company, recently had a proposal rejected by the product manager of a large camera OEM. So, she tried a few more tacks, including seeding a news story about her client in some high-profile Japanese tech publications.

Shortly after that, the product manager from the Japanese company called her up and said: “I saw the article. Why didn’t you tell us it could do all that?!!” We were back in the game.

Managed chaos!

In addition, there are many unknowns in any project. You never know what’s around the corner, so you have to stay flexible and think on your feet. At the same time, it’s important to follow a proper process. That means carefully listing target customers and partners, profiling decision makers inside target departments, tracking all your discussions, comprehensively minuting meetings, updating your CRM system and reporting regularly to the client. 

Many of our projects are successful, but not all. And, in those cases, it’s also important to have a clear understanding – and record – of what happened and why it didn’t work. 

One of my colleagues calls this ‘managed chaos’ – and there’s an element of truth in that idea!

A whole lot more

So, what am I saying? I guess it’s that having a solid network of contacts across Asia is a great asset, but it’s what you do with it that really counts. 

And, for effective business development in Asia, you need a whole lot more: knowledge of the language and culture, persistence, creativity, process and, importantly, the ability to build new relationships.


To discuss how you could grow your business in Asia, you can contact Alex at on or +44 (0)771 900 525

Alex Gover
About the Author

Alex Gover

Alex Gover is our SVP of Business Development. Now based in London, he has worked in and with East Asia for the past 25 years, including at Sony's International Marketing Division at the company's head office in Tokyo. He studied Japanese, Chinese and Economics at Oxford University before going on to take a Diploma in Advanced Japanese at Sophia University in Tokyo.

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