I used to travel a lot for business, primarily to Asia. One trip, I had a weekend layover and decided to go sightseeing, however a little off the normal route. I spent the weekend in Xi’an (pronounced Si-an). Xi’an is in Northwest China, and one of the oldest cities in the Country. The city is internationally known for the thousands of Terra Cotta Soldiers found in a local farm in 1974. The soldiers were art, buried in the 3rd century, in the tomb of the 1st Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. He wanted to be buried with his army for the afterlife.
The soldiers and the farm were 20 miles outside from the City. I hopped on a local bus that regularly made trips to the site and I noticed that I was the only Western tourist. Because of the location, far from the major cities of China like Shanghai or Beijing, tourists were mostly Chinese. In my travels, I had learned basic conversational Mandarin, however was not very skilled in reading or writing the language. This was normally not a problem, because every place caters to the Western tourist and most things were subtitled in English. This error in judgment would shortly cause me a problem.
There came a time that I had to relieve my bowels, the coffee was working through my system. The signs on the bathroom were also normally easy to distinguish, stick figures representing male and female. Unfortunately, things were a little more traditional at this location and there was only Chinese hanzi letters on the doors. I chose a door believing I had a 50% chance of guessing the correct one, I liked my odds. I guessed wrong…A Chinese woman started screaming at me in Mandarin and that was when I figured I was in the wrong place…I quickly departed saying dui bu qi, (so sorry!!).
What business lesson did I learn from this embarrassment? Be prepared. The Boy Scouts of America have been saying this for over a hundred years. I should have recognized that I was traveling to an out of the way City, not so common for Westerners. I could have asked my local Chinese friends for some tips for unexpected things that may occur. Because I had so much experience traveling, I thought I didn’t need to get any help.
A large part of my business development expertise comes from being prepared. I prepare before I meet someone for the first time by studying up on the company and person I am meeting. The internet has been a huge help in this area with sources like LinkedIn and company websites and news links. I gain as much knowledge as I can on the general topic to be discussed either through my own experiences, the internet or through networking. I review the discussion in my head prior, considering alternative outcomes and how I can address those outcomes. I also do a post review to make sure I didn’t forget an item that I may need to clarify. Lastly, I always prepare to get to the meeting early, by tracking my drive and considering alternative routes if traffic picks up.
Fortunately, my episode in Xi’an, created no negative business effects, only personal embarrassment. Something I also have some experience with over the years…
Bill Riegler is a Business Development Consultant with over thirty years of experience.