Q. How do they support young reps in China, with no rep office? A. WeChat
Today I'm talking with Stephanie Day, Operations Manager for the Southampton-based company Opportunity China - "a gateway for English teachers, lecturers and au pairs to find exciting and enriching teaching positions in China". Founded by university friends in 2011, the business is now well established with 6 full-time staff (3 in the UK, 3 in China), plus a network of associates who bring specialist skills as needed, including translation, web design and some in-China representation. They also run a partner business offering programs for young Chinese who want to visit the UK (Opportunity Education Services Ltd.), which just received its BAC accreditation the week before – a major achievement for them ("I needed to sleep for about three days afterwards!" she laughs).
Stephanie joined Opportunity in 2014, and her business partner is Tom Saunders; Tom was one of the original founders and sounds like true entrepreneur – previously he worked with SIFE (now called Enactus), and is currently ‘Entrepreneur In Residence’ at Southampton Solent University. "We're growing slowly but surely. We're hoping to set up an office in China before the end of the year - because it's needed, really" Stephanie tells me. "The team in China are invaluable for on-the ground work, liaising with schools and universities, and doing business development".
I want to find out more about how the Southampton office manages and motivates its China-side workers, who are distributed across a huge area, and don't (as yet) have the focus of a representative office. But first I ask, what in her opinion makes Chinese business culture special, if anything? What makes it different from UK business culture? After a moment Stephanie replies, "Sure there are differences between the UK and China, but there are differences between all cultures, and even between sectors – the way that different sectors do business in the UK varies, for example – so I think it's quite short-sighted to say that China has some mysterious, unique business culture. But, as you well know, there are differences, and it's important to take those differences into account in your day-to-day operations, and be sensitive to them".
For example? "One thing I struggled with a bit is to do with personal working style; I'm quite a polite person, but I expect people to be reasonably direct. So if you want something done, you ask and then add please at the end. And after they've done it you say thank you. But in China what I've found is that people don't always respond so well if you snap your fingers and expect things to be done straight away. Instead you have to 'go around the houses' a bit. And you wouldn't just say sorry I disagree with you about that – you have to find a very respectful way to express your disagreement. We're lucky in that our Chinese staff really 'get it' that they have to be honest, and we will be honest too. They are quite Westernised in their attitudes, and so can be direct with us.
"But sometimes we start working with a new school or agent, and I think I just wish you would tell me straight when there is a problem, when, say, they disagree with a contract’s wording or there is an issue with a teacher. New partners can be very indirect, and you have to probe, gently, to work out what the issue really is that they are trying to bring to you".
How do they recruit their staff in China? "It's all through personal connections and referrals – certainly not by placing adverts online. They need to be people we can trust from day one. We've worked very hard to build this business up, and can't afford to have people working for us on the other side of the world who we don't trust one hundred percent. Also, we don't start them at full load – we nurture them and build up their confidence. We don't set targets or micro-manage, but we do empower them and give them all the resources they need".
"My attitude is that I must always be there for them. They will have a reply to their emails within a few hours. I get up very early each day so that they get their answers and can use them later that day. We also keep in touch with WeChat at all times – if I get messages outside normal UK office hours, I still respond to them straight away. It's basic, but it's really important. Sometimes the chit-chat on WeChat drives me a bit mad –and sometimes it's regarding important decisions that need to be made."
Does a WeChat message count as written correspondence, then? Her Chinese colleagues seem to feel that it does, but "I still ask them to send an email. I don't like to agree to big things on WeChat, because it's hard to find those messages afterwards. But maybe that’s something I just need to get over. Sometimes things move quickly, and you just have to respond right then".
I'm really impressed by the way this company has set itself up to support their in-China team. Of course, they are a China-focussed business, so maybe we shouldn't be surprised. But I think there are lessons here that any western SME with an office or reps in China (particularly if they are Chinese employees) can learn from. From my own years of managing an office in Chengdu, I recognise that desire that the manager be available, ready to answer text messages and field questions outside of office hours. And because my team was distributed across a wide area too, I also had to learn the discipline of keeping in regular touch, and keeping a friendly chit-chat going across hours and days – in particular, using messaging, rather than relying on email. Working remotely for a foreign company is isolating enough for a young Chinese rep or agent – Opportunity China are a great example of how one might go about reducing that sense of isolation.
My thanks to Opportunity China for their time. You can find them at www.opportunity-china.com
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 The UK is 7 or 8 hours behind China, depending on Daylight Saving, so being ready for a Skype meeting at 6am in the UK can make all the difference to a Chinese colleagues' working day. Without an early start, there is very little work-time overlap for colleagues split between these two time zones.
 WeChat is not the only messaging service available in China, but it is the most common.