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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Book Review: "One Billion Customers"

One Billion Customers is a great book. I found a few small flaws, which could have made the book even better, but in the end McGregor accomplishes his goal of giving the reader a plethora of hints, tips, tricks, and rules for doing business in China. The overriding conclusion of McGregor's book is that, with some common sense, a clear idea of what you want to achieve and how to do it, and a reasonable amount of patience and pragmatism, the new generation of foreign business people can walk through what was once a seeming minefield, and emerge not only unscathed but possibly successful.

McGregor has the imaginative idea of encapsulating the main messages of each of his chapters with small Mao-like slogans on what to do, and what to avoid. Some of these should be placed on neon signs a mile high at Beijing Capital Airport. “Chinese negotiators are masters of making you feel you need them more than they need you.” “The Chinese will ask you for anything because you just may be stupid enough to agree to it. Many are.” “To be truly powerful in China is to be able to avoid responsibility for your decisions.”

The most interesting part about “One Billion Customers” is the theme of negotiating with the Chinese that runs throughout the book. I found the stories that related to negotiating especially pertinent because my peers and I (Cal Poly students) had just finished taking a negotiation class. In our class we learned different philosophies and different means to accomplish our goals, only a few of which would actually work in China. (We did learn many skills, however, that would transfer to any negotiation). During some of our practice negotiations, students used negative examples or talked down to their negotiating partner to try and persuade them to see it their way. McGregor says that this is not at all acceptable in China. He says to always keep your message positive. Be patient. Play their game. Make them squirm with tough questions just as they try to make you squirm by asking the same set of questions over and over again. Negotiating with the Chinese is an art not a science. And above all you can’t embarrass the system.

Some of my peers in their reviews have cited one weakness of the book being that McGregor at times gives too much detail about each story. They say that this depth of detail takes away from McGregor’s main points and relevance of the information. I, on the other hand, believe that the minute details and in-depth background information was the one thing that made this book interesting to read. Not only does McGregor succeed in writing a book about business, but using small details he manages to give many unique comments/examples of Chinese culture that is separate from business. Without all of the particulars, McGregor’s writing would’ve sounded more like a textbook with no feeling, emotion, or color. This quote is a great example of how McGregor mixes business information with culture, “…But he had traits the Chinese admired: a fierce chain-smoking habit, a constant stream of good natured profanity, and the ability to guzzle beer and trade shots of mao-tai late into the night with any banquet companion foolish enough to challenge him…As he rode in cars and buses on country roads going to and from isolated airplane factories, he was endlessly amused by the sights and sounds of China. Watching a bicyclist wobble down the road with a live hog on the handlebars and a dozen squawking chickens bound to the back, he would laugh out loud. Every day in China you see something you don’t see every day.”

The tone of McGregor’s advice could be classified as cautious, but I would lean more toward pessimistic. Quotes like, “In China, the art of getting licenses and approvals is to tell the government whatever it wants to hear, and then do whatever you want after permission is granted. You can always work around the system,” create this pessimistic atmosphere. In addition, McGregor seems to contradict himself at times. For instance, the above quote comes in the middle of the chapter titled, “Caught in the Crossfire,” in which at the end he says, “Follow explicitly all the rules of your government. Taking shortcuts will come back to haunt you.” Although these contradictions are few and far between, they did take away from his persuasiveness when they occurred.

The major complaint that I have about One Billion Customers is that McGregor rarely used explicitly positive examples about success stories. Yes, his examples were very helpful in understanding the landscape of the Chinese business dos and don’ts, but one major success story should’ve been used somewhere. Off the top of my head, one of the only overtly positive examples he used was of Austin Koenen. This New Jersey farm boy, who happened to graduate from Annapolis with four degrees, was an executive at Morgan Stanley who was given the CEO position at CICC. He didn’t speak Chinese and he knew little about Chinese history or culture, but he was able to win the respect of his Chinese employees by going out of his way to show respect. I really like this example because it shows that any of us have an opportunity to be successful in China if we use the skills we have. We don’t have to speak Mandarin or be an expert on Chinese history. Being sincere, honest, and as the Chinese called Koenen “openhearted,” goes a long way.

Overall “One Billion Customers” was very easy to read, used a pleasant structure that reinforced each and every main point, and gave many unique and personal insights that any businessman can put into practice when doing business in China. Despite a few minor flaws, which were inconsequential for the most part, this book was full of information about business, culture, and history. James McGregor’s writing is simple and straightforward, and I have recommended this book to my friends and family.


Anonymous Chris Carr said...

Good review and contrast to what others felt were a weakness of the book.

12:05 PM  

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