You're one of the growing legions of investment bankers and private bankers based in Hong Kong – or even Singapore – who travel almost every week to meet clients in mainland China.
How can you stand out from the competition as these meetings start to mount up? Here are some tips for successfully schmoozing Chinese clients.
1. Work weekends
“Always go the extra mile in China, because that makes clients remember you,” says Eric Sim, a former investment bank MD who is now Adjunct Associate Professor at HKUST and founder of Institute of Life, a life and career skills training school. “When I was working for Citi in China, a Shanghai-based SOE client called on a Saturday to ask for some figures for an internal report. I went to my office in Lujiazui right away to run the numbers, and gave the client what he wanted within an hour. It wasn’t much extra effort since I lived near my office, but the client still talks about how helpful and professional I was.”
2. Explain your exotic products
“In China, financial products are mostly plain vanilla and easy to understand. Many clients haven’t been exposed to derivatives and sophisticated structured products – let alone exotic ones,” says Liu San Li, a former private banker, now a business partner at wealth management firm Avallis. “So at meetings it’s important to illustrate these with simple examples and explanations. Base them on the typical products they already understand and build from there.”
3. Don’t be too ostentatious
With Beijing’s anti-corruption drive still in full swing, bankers are advised not to make too big a show when entertaining clients. “Low profile meetings” and “closed-door wining and dining” are recommended – giving valuable gifts to your clients isn’t, says Shanghai headhunter Jason Tan.
4. Connect with their kids
“Putting a client’s children’s interests first will help you build the client experience. The ability to connect and earn the trust of the family is vital to success if you’re a private banker,” says Tan. “Clients tend to ask overseas bankers about the latest immigration and overseas education trends – that knowledge is definitely useful to start conversations,” adds Stephen He, a partner at Falcon Talent in Shanghai.
5. Be international
Younger members of rich families may well be Western educated – and they’ll expect you to have a similar international outlook. “The second and third generation of high-net-worth children are more exposed, so having cultural adaptability with an international outlook will better equip bankers when dealing with the young rich,” says Clarence Law, a Singapore-based business advisor in private banking.
6. But also understand regional differences
“Understand your clients’ origin – which part of China they come from,” says He from Falcon. “Northern China clients tend to be very different from Southern ones – they usually discuss business after a few rounds of white wine, for example.”
7. Be careful before you express an opinion
“In general, Chinese, especially older ones, place importance on ‘face’. Western or even other Asian clients are more straightforward in saying their opinions, while Chinese clients rarely say no and like positive conversations,” says Pathik Gupta, head of Asia Pacific Wealth Management at consultancy McLagan. “But instead of saying yes all the time, when bankers have different investment opinions from their clients, they need to build rapport, find a common ground, and then express their thoughts.”
And when you do reveal your true thoughts, make sure to use the right language. “Most Chinese have been brought up not to speak out their disagreements, in contrast to Hong Kong bankers who are used to freedom of speech,” says Liu from Avallis. “To avoid losing face, sugar-coat your words and avoid using words that blatantly imply you disagree. For example, you could say: ‘My opinion is a little different, please correct me if I’m wrong…’”.
9. Know the pecking order
“The order in which you address people if you meet clients at their businesses is more important in China than it is in Hong Kong and Singapore,” says Liu. “It’s very important to know the seniority of the people at the meeting and their importance in the client’s company. Know who to address first and how to address them. Any mistake that causes embarrassment to the top people in front of their subordinates can create a lot of displeasure.”
10. Face always matters
Even during casual dinner meetings, bankers need to be aware of giving face to Chinese clients. “If the client passes you food, you have to try to eat it even if it’s repulsive. It’s impolite to reject, it causes a great deal of lost face,” says Liu.
11. Don’t overestimate risk appetite
“Chinese clients are demanding in the return they want from investment products, primarily because of the double-digit return they often receive in their own businesses, which becomes a comparable expectation,” says Gupta. “But some bankers misinterpret this as an aggressive risk appetite. Some Chinese clients don’t understand their investment objectives clearly and lack the concept of risk-return. They may have less risk tolerance than they claim despite demanding high returns.”
12. Manage expectations
“Bankers need to assess clients' risk tolerance from different perspectives before advising them,” says Gupta. “In general, Chinese clients care about the gap between promise and outcome, so managing their expectations is critical for developing credibility and trust.”
13. Use social media
“Our research shows that Chinese private banking clients are determined to integrate their digital contacts into their wealth creation endeavours – much more so than rich people in Hong Kong and Singapore are,” says Gupta. “Bankers should therefore use clients’ preferred social media platforms – like Weibo and Wechat – to enhance their professional image and keep their clients abreast of industry updates, supplementing face-to-face catch-ups.”
14. Talk about health
Gupta recommends that bankers share health-related topics with their clients on social media. “According to recent local research, the top concern of Chinese high-net-worth individuals is investment, followed by health. Bankers should develop common health interests and share health-related articles. Talking about concepts like how different coloured food can help different parts of the body can get you strong buy-in from Chinese clients.”
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