Let Me Check With My Boss

By Pete Brunoehler

By Pete Brunoehler

In prior columns, I have written about workplace habits that expat managers will likely find different in their offices or plants here compared with those back home. This month I am writing about the distinctly different customer habits typically found here.

Most companies, whether selling products or services, intensively train their salespeople on the most effective ‘closing techniques’ to make a sale. That training is usually based on a successful formula developed in the organisation’s country of origin and rolled out across the globe, often further tweaked utilising the experiences of local leadership in each country. When this local leader is an expat, the resulting ‘closing training’ combines that global formula with the expat’s own training wherever he/she was trained. This approach to teaching your Malaysian sales staff, while logical, is nevertheless incomplete. The fundamental issue is not how the company sells its products globally, it is how the customers buy those products in Malaysia.

In one of the companies that I led here, we sold industrial lubricants including greases and oils, and a large industry focus was power generation. Not unique to Malaysia, we sold the same products for specific applications in power plants all over the world. But while the applications were the same, the way products were purchased differed widely. To illustrate this difference, in Australia, when the product was demonstrated to the appropriate engineer, inside the plant, we could see the exact location where the product would be used, and could assess the relevant variables immediately. Our recommendation and quotation/closing offer was made on the spot. In turn, buying decisions were also made immediately by that engineer. Good sales reps received several purchase orders each day, as the purchasing habits fit the closing techniques that had originated in the US, but worked equally well in Australia. In Malaysia on the other hand, the same product was normally demonstrated in an office or a meeting room, since these engineers preferred the comfort there to the heat and noise of the plant. As such, we discussed but could not completely evaluate the necessary variables. Unfortunately, (and a source of huge frustration for expat managers), even when the engineer was fully convinced to buy, no immediate decisions were made. In fact, at least three levels of additional approval were normally required before proceeding, and one large customer required seven levels of approval. Virtually no purchase orders were ever written on the spot; quite the contrary, it typically took weeks to confirm orders.

My goal here is not to assess which approach is better, but to let you know that while you can always try to change buying habits, they differ greatly here, so it’s highly unlikely. From your sales collaterals to the demos to the closing techniques, even extending to whom your salespeople will call on (e.g., purchasing vs engineers), it is critical to understand the buying cycle and habits, as well as the constraints that your salespeople are facing.


1. Early in my expat career, I was appalled when I travelled with salespeople and not only did they not write orders on the spot, they didn’t even carry order pads!

2. Only after I’d heard “Let me check with my boss” dozens of times did I back off of my initial perspective – that we had weak sales reps unable to close sales – and grudgingly adopt a more realistic local perspective.

3. If you’ve started with more typically Western closing approach, you’ll likely need to modify it for Malaysia. If you don’t, and treat sales reps as failures when they don’t close like reps did back home, you’ll probably find yourself hiring a lot of new salespeople – with the same results.

4. This perspective extends to sales collaterals and quotations as well. Dealing directly with the decision-maker, closing relies heavily on demonstration and verbal skills. However, when the decision is made by levels and individuals that you don’t see face-to-face, your support materials, quotations, etc., need to be convincing and complete in standalone fashion.

In conclusion, the way that industrial buyers buy is fairly ingrained in Malaysia. Whatever the reason, it’s unlikely you’ll change this. So ensure that your organisation is realistic and agile enough to adapt to your customers. Local customer understanding is yet another key to good local leadership.