Culture Notes: Never Say, No

Never say, “No,” without at least trying once? This dictum rules the Indian mindset. The spoken words belie the intention. “It will be done” is more of a, “We will try.” How? When? What? These issues are usually relegated to background. Ironically, the Indian outsourcing industry is replete with examples of companies losing out on business all because they weren’t willing to say no!

The Client Is Always Right!

The medical transcription (MT) industry gained mammoth proportions in India from 1997. Almost anyone with an entrepreneurial bent of mind took to MT outsourcing. The remaining took to training! The industry almost fizzled out in 2001 because MTs committed hara-kiri by continuously reducing rates to obtain more work as competition increased. This had a direct impact on quality, and as the number of unsatisfied clients grew, so did failures. The companies unable to bear the brunt of losses wound up shutting down.

Indians have always believed in the adage, “Client is God” and continue to do so! Therefore, whatever the client says has to be correct and abided by. Whether it is an unreasonable delivery schedule, a difficult task or rates that are ridiculously low, you’ll find Indians saying “Yes” to all!

Stepping on Trust

Trust and relationships take time to build, and Indians take that all too seriously! They also consider it rude to question the client. Rather than express their inability to understand, they prefer to solve the problem “among themselves, through discussions.” The general belief is, “Let’s at least give it a shot; if we can’t do it, we’ll learn that later.”

According to the founder of a leading venture capital firm, Indian programmers have always had the tendency to say they are adhering to the schedules, but when the delivery time arrives, they admit to not completing the same. This puts the entire planned agenda of the client in jeopardy — and, of course, the long-term relationship.

Competing? Yes or Maybe No?

The outsourcing industry faces similar problems across Asia. The Thai language has no word for “No”! In China, a “Yes” can be translated as, “We can take the talks to a more concrete level.” The same is true for Indonesia. Not willing to be impolite or embarrass, Indonesians end up conveying exactly the opposite of what they actually mean. The native language – Bahasa Indonesian — has 12 words that say, “Yes,” but actually mean, “No.” Translations in English fail to capture the intent!

Laurence Brahm, who has authored numerous books on China, has clearly framed the Chinese mindset in his book titled, When Yes Means No! (Or Yes or Maybe): How to Negotiate a Deal in China.
Evidently, phrases such as, “I understand,” “We will see,” “Yes, butÉ” are just polite versions of “No” in the Asian culture. It’s imperative that the client be able to decipher these phrases appropriately, as they may not necessarily indicate agreement.

Inferring Silence

As any person with the slightest knowledge of business will opine, when it comes to two companies coming together for any task, problems and differences will arise. The toss-off line, “No problem. Everything is running smoothly,” always has more behind it not being said! Companies should be wary and clearly state during each round of talks that they would like to be apprised of all problems. During the initial stages of the outsourcing agreements, you should insist upon shorter delivery schedules. This will ensure that you maintain a tight and direct control and be ready for any lapses that might occur.

To avoid any pitfalls, you must ensure that the service providers have a complete understanding of the quality and time of deliverables. Clearly state all the requirements in the contracts and try to evolve effective communication channels.

Outsourcing successfully is a challenge and to be on top of it, you need to read the mind and not the lips.

In a nutshell:

  • The Indian mindset is that clients are always right.
  • Indian vendors may agree to the most unreasonable demands in the hope of building relationships.
  • Indians have always maintained that it is better to say, “There is a possibility” than refuse.
  • You’ll find similar trends across Asia.

Useful Links


Laurence J. Brahm’s book, When Yes Means No! (Or Yes or Maybe): How to Negotiate a Deal in China