Erick, Online English teacher at Acadsoc and experienced business counsellor.
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As an online English teacher, this new career is a bit challenging compared with my previous job when I was working as a private business counsellor before joining Acadsoc. Interestingly, sometimes, I felt like I am still giving business suggestions to my clients when teaching BEC courses to my ESL learners. Since we all know, many Chinese companies are seeking for new opportunities abroad under the flag ‘Belt and Road’, selling goods and services to every corner of the world. Hence, there is a massive demand for a skilled and experienced negotiator. Don’t underestimate any single word you said in a business conversation, as I believe, Butterfly Effect, which can lead to an entirely different result of your negotiation.
Unlike native speakers, Chinese have their own way of thinking and doing business, prioritising profit and business manner. Those are advantages, clearly, to make so many Chinese companies competitive in the world. However, as several of my friends complained, doing business with Chinese is never an easy case. In most cases, they are so ‘indirect’ or make others confused in the very beginning phase of a business conversation. Somehow, I feel responsible for that, as an online English teacher, what I teach my student will improve their performance in English business conversation in the future.
My friend, Ken, recently told me a story. He runs a company, as a wholesaler to resell Chinese ceramics in the US. This business is profitable, more precisely, very profitable. However, as the boss, Ken has many things to worry about every day, Duties and Taxes, Customs Inspection, fashion in the US, competitors…and most essentially, communication with his Chinese partners.
At the beginning of every quarter, Ken will Email all his Chinese suppliers, maybe asking to expand the production and transfer volume of a specific type of ceramic, to stop importing another type, to design and manufacture a new style, or to recommend some types for him to pick out.
Since he knows, other wholesalers are importing goods from his suppliers as well, he has to carefully negotiate to get the best price and ensure the volume and quality of ceramic. However, sometimes, it made him really confused and struggled when talking to his suppliers.
In November 2017, when he tried to import a pack of decorative and daily used ceramic crafts, he found out that some types of tableware were not yet through quality inspections and given an examing report. Though he really loved the appearance of them and expected to have a good sale back in the US, he decided not to take risks. According to the contract made between him and the supplier, he returned the goods and asked for a refund.
Sounds like a very small case in our business case study in the university, but it took a month till Ken finally received his money. After Ken sent his first Email, request for a refund and reject to receive goods without proper inspection, he got a reply soon, from his supplier, emphasising that the quality of these goods are 100% OK and they would make up for the examing report in a few weeks. Ken sent another Email, emphasising that he reserved the right to ask for a refund according to their contract. Followed by his second Email, he got another response, the supplier was willing to take full responsibility of these goods and the risks and told Ken that his competitor felt OK to receive those types of ceramic crafts. Finally, Ken sent the third Email, bringing up the same request, and yes, he received a full amount of refund.
I am not blaming any sides in this case because I know they both have reason to do so. For Ken, he did not want to take the risk of being intercepted by custom or receiving a complaint from customers while Chinese ceramic exporters are hard to survive especially after the 2008 economic crisis. And what really made Ken annoyed was the way they communicated with each other. He only asked for a refund following the rights entitled by the contract, and he did not say anything about the quality of the goods. What he expected, was mere yes or no to his concern. If no, the supplier should reply as ‘We are sorry but the refundable terms and conditions do not fit your situation because…’ instead of talking irresponsibly. It really confused Ken a lot, made him feel that he was bargaining with a vegetable seller in a food market.
As an online English teacher, my suggestion to students
From my experience in business, I made a summary and list the top 10 idioms for BEC students when learning business conversation with me.
Some may argue, I’d better teach my students the difference in business culture between the west and the east. Well, that makes sense but impractical. All my students understand and realise there is a difference, but how to solve it? They are all adult learners and cannot quickly adjust themselves to a new cultural base, unlike kids.
Therefore, I believe these 10 idioms will help my students a lot. Not only using them in their English speaking but without awareness, it will change their behaviour gradually. Self-suggesting, self-practice and self-correction are always more efficient than an English teacher’s words. By using these idioms, my students will gradually learn how to briefly and clearly express their concerns, instead of doing the irrelevant talking.
‘Get down to business’
This means to stop making small talk (which is highly preferred by Chinese before actually moving to business) and start talking straight.
For instance, “I called you because I want us to get down to business about our project next year.”
‘Get the ball rolling’
This means to start something right away, like a project or a business plan. For example, “We have so many things to discuss, so let’s get the ball rolling!”
If you have made up your mind, just do it! If not yet, please let your partner know it clearly.
‘Give the thumbs up’
This means to give someone or something approval. For example, “I already gave the company the thumbs up to do whatever that needs to be done.”
Don’t say ‘yes’ when you actually think ‘no’ in your mind.
‘Hands are tied’
When someone’s hands are tied, this means they do not have control over the situation. For example, “As much as I’d like to start a business with you, my hands are tied. My wife doesn’t seem to agree with me.”
If you don’t have the authorization to handle something, please clearly state it.
‘Keep one’s eye on the ball’
This means to give something one’s full attention and to not lose focus. For example, “This project may seem difficult. But we just need to keep our eyes on the ball until something better comes up.”
Show your concern and focus on business, instead of making your partner believe that you don’t care about your cooperation at all.
‘Learn the ropes’
This means to learn the basics of something. For example, “This is my first time running a coffee shop, so I’m still trying to learn the ropes.”
We all keep learning new things when doing business, if you remain confused about something, don’t hesitate to ask.
‘On a roll’
This means that he or she has had several successes in a row. For example, “Our company is on a roll! Our profits are looking good!”
When introducing your company to others, focus on the key points, revenue, profit, market share, etc. No one cares if you have a coffee machine in your office or not.
‘Put all one’s eggs in one basket’
This means to rely on only one thing to bring success. For example, “I think it’s a good idea if we invest in something else. We can’t just put all our eggs in one basket.”
Showing your determination to all in, to convince your partner to fully trust you.
A “nine-to-five” is a job during normal hours, which usually starts at 9 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. For example, “I have a nine-to-five job right now, so I don’t think I can do this project at all.”
This means 24 hours a day. For example, “I’ve been working on these reports round-the-clock for the past few days.”
There are still a lot of idioms out there you can use in your everyday business conversations! Learning these expressions can help you in maintaining a smooth sailing and easy conversations with an English speaker. It’ll also give you more confidence to speak in English.