How to build relationships with business owners in Middle Asia

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How to build relationships with business owners in Middle Asia

Whenever I meet another European easily moving around Middle Asia, I feel like meeting another initiated person, someone on the same wavelength. “Eastern DNA. Business guide for effective management of employees from the East” – a book by Polish authors Zbyszek Pawlak and Tomasz Peterman that gave me the feeling before I met the authors (unfortunately, currently available in Polish only). 

The book has quite a curious structure: it’s made up of ten “eastern stories” about drivers from Middle Asia who came to work in Europe. After each story, in the “Cultural context” section, the authors explain the reasons for a hero’s described behaviour. And in “Business use” they provide specific advice and tools for managing employees of the kind. I recommend this book for transport companies employing drivers from the East as it would surely help to prevent lots of misunderstandings. 

We in Clever Logistics deal with another sort of partners– business owners from the East. They consider cargo transportation to be a key business process, so they select freight forwarders themselves and personally control the whole delivery process. Opposite to drivers the book tells about, those are people experienced in international trade and generally highly educated.

Globalisation, similar education systems, international experience “unify” us. At the same time, traditional upbringing doesn’t pass without a trace. Thus, businessmen from Middle Asia still keep “eastern DNA” inside. 

We observe their behaviour with curiosity and often even learn from them – generosity, hospitality, respect for elders, reading people’s eyes as well as calmness and distance.

While reading the book, I made margin notes recalling situations from our company’s history. The book helped me to define our partners’ traits and systematize the knowledge I share with new colleagues during introductory training in Clever.

That’s also why I am sharing the guidelines about how to behave in relations with trading partners from Middle Asia. I draw examples taken from our experience and support myself with quotes from the book.

Business relationships – we build trust first 

We should be ready to introduce our personality first. So, no matter if it’s a 3 hours meeting or we spend 3 days together – anyway, a business discussion will be the result. Be patient! Recently, after a whole day in Warsaw (airport, office, lunch, shopping), a customer from Tajikistan only very briefly told me about aspects related to our common business projects in the evening at a railway station awaiting his train to Moscow.

The goal of an introductory conversation – especially during the early stage of cooperation, is to introduce your personality, your power, honesty, experience as well as to let your partner introduce himself. Additionally, we should give another party an opportunity to see the benefits following from cooperation with us: higher earnings, fewer efforts, meeting the need to belong – being a partner of a well-known company.

When talking to customers from Middle Asia I use two tools: questions and recently popular storytelling, which is a natural way of communication in the East. I start from questions, but if a conversation doesn’t go anywhere, I move to stories – customer opens up and joins conversation drawing cases from his personal life and business.

Questions that I ask are related to two areas: the first most important topic is family, the second one – country, its culture and traditions. Talking about politics and religion is not banned, although I approach these things very carefully. I don’t rise these topics myself, I’d rather listen actively than say anything. Business questions also appear but not at the beginning of the conversation.

Through telling stories from my personal life I let partner see what I can do, how I assist, how I act in complicated situations, my achievements, my acquaintances and that I share similar values: family, respect, national pride.

Telling stories from corporate experience, I show how we act in this or that situation, what customers we have, why they trust us. I don’t make a presentation with figures like „our customers are X, Y, Z, our turnover is X”. I speak their language to them, the story language.

A guest is more important than the father

A few years ago, upon arrival to Uzbekistan, a traveller still had to fill in a customs declaration indicating down to a cent the amount of cash and currency he had with him. Another declaration had to be submitted on departure showing how much money is being exported from the country.

Upon one of my trips to Tashkent, a customs officer at the airport took my entrance and departure declarations, saw equal amounts declared and said smiling: “So, Uzbeks didn’t let you spend your money, ha?”.

I also remember the discussion in Moscow with a customer from Dushanbe (Tajikistan). He was wondering when I would visit his country, why I do always fly to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan but never there. I said openly: I met all the partners in Warsaw or Moscow, only a few of them are from Dushanbe, it’s a long way, high costs,  and family miss me; and his reaction was: “But I will pay for everything, you will come with your family, of course!” 

Of course, I didn’t accept the offer, I just wanted to draw an example of how hospitable they are. They say “a guest is more important than father” – and remember that respect for a father in the East is boundless.

What does it mean to us? Businessmen from Asia receive us as kings expecting from us the same, in their turn.

Partners from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan may even expect a full option: pick-up at the airport, paying hotel, meals, rides, entertainment and escorting to the airport. Besides, don’t be surprised if such a visit lasts a week.

Prior to the guest’s arrival, I would ask about his plans, offer help with hotel booking and domestic transport (taxis, train and air tickets). Our guest may be visiting a few other partners in Europe, may want to travel, have a medical examination, etc. Through this kind of conversation, we may understand his expectations towards us.

It is 100% sure that a guest from the above-listed countries, as well as from Kazakhstan, would expect that we pick up and escort him back to the airport, pay restaurant bills and help with everything he may need.

Remember that they are mainly Muslims, so we should ask if a restaurant must be halal or not? Some of them eat pork and drink alcohol when travelling, but the vast majority of guests would eat chicken, beef, mutton, fish and drink tea – a lot of tea. Usually, we invite our guests to a Turkish or Lebanese restaurant. We order many different dishes, put them on a common table and everyone may try everything. They would feel like home then. They receive guests this way – I love the tradition.

And one more important thing:  an eastern company owner wants to talk to an owner as well. If not an owner, then to a director. If not a director, then at least to a manager. So, I advise arranging a meeting with the highest-level manager possible in the company; our guest will appreciate such a sign of respect.

Building our winner’s image

In cooperation with partners from Middle Asia, you can never show weakness in talking about your mistakes of failures. You risk losing credibility in their eyes. In the same way, we should never make them think that our employee did something we didn’t know about – then it means that we are weak managers, we don’t have control.

Here is a little advice from the authors of “Eastern DNA” for employers:

Lack of your reaction to negligence will be treated as weakness, not as mature understanding by supervisor (page 32).

– exactly the same is about business relationships. It is difficult to make them sign any document. If we step down giving them peace of mind – they will treat it as their win and our defeat and weakness.

They stay where they hear, there’s a lot and they can get even more. If you show that you need them to win – you’ve already lost them… Take care of your victory and communicate it, then they’ll be sure that their fortune will multiply beside you (page 32).

I have a habit of talking to Clients from time to time, although assigned freight forwarders constantly keep in touch with them. During these conversations, we hardly talk about work but about interesting events happening in private and professional life. Telling about our success I bring a partner certainty of his right choice of supplier-the winner, with whom his own success becomes closer.

Saving others’ face

When making comments to employees, make understatements they can hide behind (page 154) 

– this 100% also applies to customers. If there’s a partner’s failure, we don’t say it directly but in a third person: “Something must have gone wrong, this time unloading and clearances took more than 48 hours, we have demurrage costs”. An Uzbek will perfectly understand everything, we don’t have to tell him: “Your fault, you pay.”

On the other hand, when our eastern partner is talking to us this way, we must realize that he is giving signals that we are at fault, he is really unhappy, and we must react. He won’t say it that explicitly, so this form is absolutely an alarm for us.

Consignor didn’t weigh the cargo at shipping, the thickness of metal appeared to be greater than previously. The truck was weighed at the border. 500 kg excess was confiscated by Russian customs, besides, the driver had to pay for reloading, sealing, etc. When the action was over, our forwarder talked to our customer (consignee):

Forwarder: It’s the exporter’s mistake, actually, you are entitled to charge him with all the costs.

Long pause

Customer: How much you say it is?

Forwarder: xxx $ customs charge plus 500 kg confiscated


Customer: No, I won’t tell him about it. It’s a shame. Let’s forget it.

In his opinion, it is not correct pointing out to another person a mistake he made, especially to a supplier that he respects and cares about – because our eastern client cannot afford another person losing face.

Conclusion: a few guidelines

Be ready for price negotiations. On one hand, costs never matter when it’s about receiving a guest, on the other hand, they bargain for 50 € with a 5 000 € freight. If a Turkmen gains anything, he will be happy, so let’s give him that opportunity. But don’t let him treat our concession as our weakness, be compromising.

Normally, Uzbeks don’t put up  Christmas trees, don’t eat pork, don’t drink alcohol. Some kind of Christmas tree decoration, vodka or pork sausage as a Christmas gift won’t be a good idea… But they love European chocolates and sweets– and their families are very big, and everyone must be treated.

A word said matters most for a customer from the East. Nevertheless, we strongly advise having everything on paper, as well as with any other partner.

We select our partners ourselves. This is common for contractors from every country and culture. So, let’s treat meeting a potential partner seriously, let’s “read the eyes”.

As follows from my observations, the concentration of traits I pointed here diminishes from East to West. Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians also demonstrate a lot of traits from the list. Especially the winner’s image and avoiding situations when a partner is losing face.

I’m pretty sure that the European is able to feel the Eastern sole and navigate all of this because I know more than one. Good luck in building relationships with business from Middle Asia!

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