The challenge of communication is an eternal one, not yet resolved really. Whether 50 years ago, or ten years from now, the challenge will continue, because communication begins at birth and ends with death.
When I worked as a pharma medical representative (MR), I visited Bagalkot, in Karnataka state. Dr Kop had one of the largest medical practices there. For over 20 years he was a compounder (pharmacist) and then got himself registered as a medical practitioner; and developed a very large practice. Patients would begin to line up to see him since 7am.
There was no special consideration for MRs; they too had to wait in the Q.
On this, my first visit, I was at no. 15. When I was close to the open door, I saw Dr Kop applying the stethoscope to a patient’s head, or knee or calf- in addition to the chest.
My turn came and then I met him and introduced myself. We spoke a mix of Hindi and English (he did not know enough of either language).
But he took the time to explain to me that most of his patients were illiterate villagers. They could not understand why a doctor applies the stethoscope to the chest when the pain was in the head or wherever!
Dr Kop was the only doctor in town who demonstrated that he is attending to the problem, where the problem is located. Hence his high reputation!
It was then my turn to explain to him that our iron/vitamin tablets (I opened a strip to show him) in some ways symbolized solidified blood.
They were sugar coated blood- red coloured tablets. When swallowed, the ingredients helped in the formation of blood, with iron, folic acid and Vit B12, thus preventing anaemia.
It was too much to explain all the technical terms through the language barrier between us.
However, we had both communicated to each other.
The large crowds of patients for Dr Kop – and the very high sales of iron/vitamin tablets in Bagalkot – among the highest in the country for a Tier 3 town, was proof enough that we had!
Soon after that I began to make calls on senior doctors in Bombay’s Opera House area.
One of them, Dr JC Patel, was a scion of the medical consulting physicians in the city. His receptionist would wait till there were 6 MRs in the waiting room – and then send them all in together.
They all lined up as they were not asked to sit. Each one was allowed to talk for only four minutes, and only about two products! (in later, more sophisticated times, this was called “an elevator pitch”).
One had to be careful to bring out the outstanding pluses of your product in this short time – and also be careful not to have direct conflict with any of the other MRs present there.
If you went beyond 4 minutes, Dr JC would stop you abruptly.
This communication was a far cry from the style in Bagalkot!
It would take a good 30 minutes of preparation to effectively speak for four minutes at Opera House!
When I went beyond Bagalkot and Opera House in Bombay, communication became even more complex. Across the globe, it is an even greater challenge today.
One had to know that using the first name in conversation with a European, in initial meetings, is a mark of uncalled for familiarity, which is unwelcome.
This may be fine with Americans – where in fact, continuing to address him as Mr May sound strange and formal, and be a barrier to good communication – specially, after he has been calling you Walter (first name) right through the morning!
I did not know for a long time that even inadvertently pointing a toe at an Arab was an insult (silently observed, but not ignored) and can ruin any chances of a successful business negotiation.
And I did not know that one cannot force the pace of negotiations in the first meeting, but wait for three or four meetings before you come to business, because you must first become a friend in order to do business.
In the West, however, you may only become a friend after you do business together.
In spite of all that I may say or write and the care that we may take, we could still go wrong, as when I was making a presentation on a range of cosmetics to a big buyer from Hong Kong. The meeting seemed to have gone off extremely well.
The buyer group of three women seemed to be impressed with the quality, the packaging, and the prices. Until I came to talking about hair removers (depilatories) I could see that they had lost all interest.
Sensing this, I ventured to ask WHY?
Had they no interest?
The leader of the group then told me. Don’t you see that we do not need hair removers in this market? Then I did.
I had not thought enough about the target audience before speaking- and then made a foolish mistake. It was misdirected communication!
(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India (FIMC). He was a corporate executive for 14 years and pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across the globe in four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books; a business columnist; visiting professor on marketing in the US, Europe, and Asia. His latest 3 books written in collaboration are 5Gs of Family Business; Marketing in a Digital/ data world; and Customer Value Starvation can kill. He now spends most of the time in NGO work.)