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Lesson in business humility: how one Eastern culture secures loyalty

A look at how the Chinese concept of humility does much in the way of securing customer loyalty in contrast to how the West does business (hint: we’re not famous for being humble).

business humility

business humility

A lesson in business humility

Learning to be humble and vulnerable in business is a quality often over looked by many Western business owners. In China, customer service takes on a whole new meaning when business owners (and workers) embrace an attitude of engaging with the customer. That engagement leads to relationship building by laying a foundation of openness, humility, and accountability. They forfeit the battle to win the war. It may seem as if they are loosing a transaction, but ultimately admitting a mistake or owning up to a misunderstanding ensures a long business relationship.

I recently had a de ja vu experience in Texas with a Chinese businessman that mimicked one I had in Shandong, China a few years ago. Mr. Yu* had drafted a contract for a business agreement between the two of us. When it came time to sign, I noticed a discrepancy and brought it to Mr. Yu’s attention. After some back and forth, Mr. Yu’s eyes got wide and he apologized and uttered “Bu hao yi si!”

“Bu hao yi si”

chinese“Bu hao yi si.” Transliterally, this phrase means “not a good meaning.” But when used as an expression, it translates to “How embarrassing!” Interestingly enough, this phrase has many uses in the business realm. After Mr. Yu said this phrase, he offered to redraft the contract immediately and throw in a few freebies.

In true polite Chinese form, I refused the extras, but Mr. Yu insisted, repeating “bu hao yi si” over and over again. What I realized is that once someone has admitted they committed an error so embarrassing, it is up to them to correct it and make sure it never happens again. How often do we as business owners or manages actually say “Wow, I messed up! Let me make it up to you.”

More often than not, the passive phrase “Sorry for your inconvenience” is tossed around, but rarely is there active accountability displayed, let alone any signs of business humility.

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When it comes to ensuring lasting business relationships, owning up to mistakes as embarrassing can have multiple benefits for your business. It not only shows you as human and caring, it also makes customers more willing to partner with you.

Written By

Monica Moffitt, founder and Principal Cultural Consultant at Tianfen Consulting, Inc., has traveled the world and enjoys linguistics and all things culture. Having split her career between project management and business analytics, Monica merges logic, fluency in Chinese and creativity in her new role as cultural consultant. She received a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies/Chinese from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Business Administration (International Management and Marketing) from University of Texas at Dallas.

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