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Sales Training in China


I am planning a classroom based sales-skills training seminar for my company's distributors in China. Having run technical training seminars in China before, I have seen how, compared with Western classrooms, there is very little interaction in the Chinese classroom, and few questions are asked. The importance of not losing face seems to dictate communication patterns in the classroom more than anything else.
To run a successfull sales skills seminar, I would typically use a lot of role-plays, case study analysis and practical exercises. I'm worried that this just won't work with a Chinese audience, and I doubt the effectiveness of a frontal non-interactive seminar.

What does Chinese sales training normally look like? Does anyone have any positive experience or advice?
Dan Shalem

8 Responses

  1. Sales Training in China
    I have run sales courses in China for distributors of technical medical products and would agree that role-play in particular is difficult although this can be as much due to language as cultural issues. The loss of role-play from the agenda can be offset by the diligence that will be applied to other parts of the course.

    My experience is that understanding the hierarchy of the team is critical and this should be established as far in advance as possible. The senior members normally will not expect to be part of any exercises. Giving them the role of prize-giver or observer (against your criteria) will be more appropriate.

    I have found that group exercises work well and much better than individual exercises, especially where these build to something to which all have contributed. This final version can then be discussed and modelled without putting people at risk of losing face. If you are unsure who to put in each group, ask the most senior person to decide for you. This can save a lot of discomfort and tension caused by unequal pairings. I would avoid setting competitions as the most senior group will (must) win.

    The lack of questioning and participation you find has a lot to do with both hierarchy and the principle of “obedience and respect” for the teacher. A question, especially from a junior member of the group, would be viewed as a disgraceful interruption. It therefore helps to explain how you would like the group to contribute from the start and have some interactive sessions where permission is formally granted for noise and discussion, and some lecture format that will be comfortable and familiar in style. Interactively, games work very well, as they have an implicit licence for play.

    Finally, it is worth remembering that Chinese speech involves limited hand gestures and few facial expressions. This can give you the impression that you need to run a week of icebreakers when actually all is well.

    I hope it goes well. Please contact me at if you would like to discuss this further.

    Steve Postins

  2. Health warning: Sales skills are culturally specific

    I agree that optimising the soft skills dimension to your classroom delivery will be a real challenge. Steve makes a number of excellent and well observed points on this. However these problems are just the starting point.

    Had you considered the possibility that a great deal of the sales skills content you are proposing to provide might also be completely inappropriate?

    For example, if the issue of losing face is problematic in the relatively anodyne environment of a training session, then how might this affect your proposed best practice approach to a power charged sales negotiation or closing techniques?

    Most of the generic sales skills best practice taught in the the West was originally evolved by high performing US salesmen addressing US customers (eg. Victor Kiam).

    Thanks to the pre-eminence of American corporations many of these specific techniques came to adopted internationally within major organisations. The myth seems to have emerged that these techniques are in some way culturally neutral or universal. In many cases they are about as globally relevant as the ‘World Series’.

    Alas, customers in Iowa behave very differently from customers in Ipswich, or for that matter, Irian Jaya. And where customers behave differently salespeople have to behave differently. Forget this at your peril.

    I once had the privilege of seeing a US sales team totally alienate a potential British corporate client with a text-book US sales pitch. Only through British eyes could you see the clenched teeth behind the prospective clients smile and cut glass manners!

    At the debrief the US sales team rated their performance ‘a perfect ten’, high fiving and backslapping all the way out the door. They were subsequently shell-shocked when they failed to get an invitation to the next stage of the bid process.

    Given that British Culture and North American Culture are both kissing cousins, imagine the scope for mismatch if you try to extend standard western sales skills best practice to China.

    I would recommend that you work with an experienced Chinese sales training company to review, critique and localise (not just translate) your proposed sales skills course. Ideally, get them to deliver this in Chinese.

    This will free you up to focus on the equally important but less culturally challenging area of technical training.

    Sorry if this is not the answer you wanted to hear!

    Hope this helps.


  3. It’s the training structure that must respect culture
    The kind of behavior Adrian is referring to is not what good selling skills training teaches, in the US or anywhere else. If your sales training course is well structured and its content is solid (based around deferential, consultative, customer-focused probing) you will be fine. I have not worked in mainland China, but have had a lot of experience in running sales and customer service training and OD work in Taiwan and Hong Kong (as well as in Korea and Japan), and so long as you are sensitive to the nuances of interpersonal protocols in those places, you should have no problems.

    Using role plays is essential. Ideally, let small groups (3-4 people) do role plays in parallel so no one person is on the spot in front of the whole class. But so far as possible, you need to structure them so that the participants coach and provide feedback to each other, and let them engage each other in Chinese. If you have a mix of senior and junior people, use the seniors as coaches. You may think you are marginalizing yourself in doing this, but you achieve a number of things:
    People are less inhibited in their own language
    They will be selling in their own language anyway
    You can let coach-salesperson teams dilute the face-threatening focus on the individual
    You enhance the status of the senior people, and they engage role plays with real seriousness
    The feedback to you and the group afterwards can be led by those most comfortable in English
    Your feedback can be conducted with questions rather than with critiques
    A discussion of the appropriateness of the “theory” of your course can be an intimate part of understanding and assimilating it, while giving due deference to cultural mismatches.

    Unlike Adrian, I don’t believe that core selling skills are culturally specific, though the way they are manifested may be culturally toned. Nor do I accept that the US and UK are so close – as a Brit living in the US I can assure you they may share a similar language, but that’s about it! I have run interpersonal skills courses in more than 30 countries around the world, and the only times I have had participants consistently challenge the validity of content is in the UK, and then only if the course has an obvious US pedigree. I think it has more to do with cultural prejudice than cultural inappropriateness. (Back in the early 1980’s I used to run Xerox Learning Systems courses – Account Development Strategies and so on – and had no end of problems with people in the UK dismissing the concepts as American-so-irrelevant. When the company produced a UK-English version of the course, with UK spelling, and UK-accented audio and video, all of those challenges went away – even though nothing had changed in the words themselves, or in the actual skills being taught.) It’s not the formula of the pill but how you sugar-coat it that makes it palatable!

  4. Are sales skills culturally specific?

    A very North American view of the world.

    As someone with a Degree in Communication and Cultural Studies and personal experience of working for an international company I am very happy to carry on politely disagreeing with you on this.

    Cultural Hegemony represents the pervasive and excessive influence of one culture on a domain. Over the last fifty years this accurately describes the influence that US thinking has had on sales training theory and practice.

    Whilst this has led to much that is of value in North America, the results are by no means globally applicable.

    My personal position remains that sales skills training should be carried out by local personnel working in their native culture, augmenting local best practice with whatever elements of internationally accepted best practice prove to add value.

    Let’s ask the Traininzone editors to start a new thread on this specific subject so that others can have their say.

    Best wishes

  5. My perspective is global
    Adrian: My view of the world is “very North American”?? What’s this, a negative national stereotye from someone professing cultural sensitivity?? 🙂

    No, my view is not North American. I only arrived in the US five years ago — I was born and raised in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and graduated in business with majors in market research and consumer behavior from a South African university. My 27 years in global OD and training have been divided into 6 years in South Africa, 11 years in Switzerland, 5 years in the UK, and 5 years in the US. Much of my on-the-ground training and OD work in more than 30 countries has been for local subsidiaries of multinationals from the UK, US, Switzerland, Japan, Germany and Sweden. But a fair bit of it has been for local companies who are clients or agencies of those subsidiaries.

    So my view, far from being North American, is based in the extensive global experiences of a professional with deep third-world roots and a very sharp sense of cultural nuance.

    I am not sure what your involvement with sales training has been. Most people who are not in that business have entirely the wrong idea about selling skills, assuming it is all about fast-talking assertiveness. I’d agree that that kind of behavior is not going to work in China (or anywhere, for that matter). But the core skills of consultative selling are about deferential enquiry, conversation, listening, clarifying, and building mutual perceptions of needs and solutions. Those skills are universally applicable, though the way in which you go about deploying them may vary with the circumstances. There is more variation in the way you have to approach potential customers within any national group than there is between national groups. each prospect is an individual, period.

    Godfrey Parkin

  6. I don’t believe in Global: Culture is local

    Sorry you regard the implication that you have a North American perspective as implicitly negative. Perhaps this tells us more about your prejudices than it does about mine? I spend a lot of time in the US as it happens.

    I recognise the arguments you raise and agree that consultative modes of selling (value selling, SPIN etc) tend to be far more internationally transferable than product sales techniques (as used in FMCG or car sales for example). This is mainly because consultative sales techniques seek to uncover the underlying problems or needs as expressed by the prospect.

    The requirement for key skills in deferential enquiry, conversation, listening, clarifying and building mutual perceptions is certainly international.

    The problem is that the precise characteristics of these interpersonal skills are always inextricably embedded in the specific cultural context of the salesperson and their customer.

    The point I am making is that competence in these skills can only be developed and assessed with reference to the very specific standards set by local culture. The added value provided by a trainer not native to that culture is therefore very limited.

    Ironically the bigger the cultural gulf the more likely it is that the trainer will never become aware of the problem.

    By culture I mean the shared knowledge, behavior, ideas, and customs of a group or groups of people. This definition accommodates the fact that cultural variation within national groups is inevitable especially in ethnically diverse countries with multiple languages and religious faiths. I certainly agree that this variation needs to be recognised and accommodated.

    In short I don’t think merely sugar-coating your pill is likely to be enough. It might ensure the patient swallows your prescribed medicine, but will do nothing to prevent the unpleasant side effects…


  7. A global perspective is essential to understand local cultures
    I think we are in agreement on the big picture, but we are simply talking at cross purposes on detail.

    Having a global perspective is essential if you are to succeed in training in local cultures. Of course culture is local, and local not only to nationality but to region, city, industry, organization, team. It is also contextual. And it’s dynamic. Any trainer or consultant with a “global perspective” is aware of this and structures his/her intervention processes to identify, accommodate and leverage those cultural nuances. Having a local partner working with you is helpful and often necessary; doing your homework in advance is always essential.

    I am a tad cynical about “courses” that are merely “packaged content”. But you can design a learning experience which will leverage the knowledge, skills and culture of participants. Assuming the skills being developed are universal and relevant (many are not); with well crafted processes you can have learners effectively create their own content. With good guidance, such an experience can achieve its desired outcomes virtually anywhere (emphasis on virtually).

    You are correct that a non-local trainer may often not become aware of local nuances. But this is not insurmountable – the more experienced globally the trainer is, the more attuned he/she becomes. I am sure my first forays into training outside my culture were blundering, but I persevered. On a discussion forum some time ago an American trainer about to run a course in Mexico for the first time asked for tips on how to make it go well. I provided a few insights. To my surprise I received dozens of e-mails from Mexican trainers thanking me for crystallizing the issues that they had been struggling to define. Outsiders have a perspective that insiders can’t easily attain – is that not one of the reasons we consultants are able to contribute so effectively ;-)?

    And finally, I withdraw my sugar coated pill metaphor. It was specific to the UK-US issue in my example of the Learning International course, and I in no way intended to advocate globalization through simplistic cloning-plus-cosmetics. I do a fair bit of globalization consultancy for e-marketing initiatives, and I tend to be a dogmatic advocate of localize-test-and-tweak using local agencies wherever available!

    Godfrey Parkin

  8. BTW, don’t stereotype FMCG and car salespeople
    This was part of my previous note, but the system limits you to 2000 characters…

    On a different issue (independent of culture), I don’t follow your distinction between consultative selling and “product sales techniques as used in FMCG or car sales”. I assume you are talking in the latter instance about the old-school one-day-seminar-with-book Dale Carnegie, Zig Ziglar glad-handing approach? I may be wrong, but most major corporations tend to shy away from these, though individual salespeople and small business entrepreneurs seem to lap them up. And, sadly, they export rather well – as products they are globally successful, but as skills-in-practice I have my doubts!

    Over the years I have done a lot of training or OD work – mainly in marketing and sales – for several car companies (GM, Toyota, Honda, Ford) and dozens of FMCG companies (Nestle, Unilever, Revlon, Reckitt & Colman, Cadbury etc.). I know that all of their sales people are steeped in professional consultative selling skills.

    I guess it’s back to culture. Some companies have a culture of customer-focused professionalism; others have a culture of assertive hustling. In the US, it tends to be the credit card companies and telcos whose salespeople hustle unashamedly, but that’s probably because through inept marketing they have reduced their products to commodities.


    Godfrey Parkin


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