STRATEGY

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Finding contacts in China, getting meaningful reviews of the boss.
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Q. How can I find the right business contacts in China? I want to do business there as an export-import agent.

Artan Hange, Columbus, Ohio

The U.S. Department of Commerce's Gold Key Matching Service arranges meetings between American companies and foreign agents, distributors, sales reps, and potential partners in 87 countries, including China. Kendig Kneen signed up last year: The CEO of Al-Jon, based in Ottumwa, Iowa, began the process Stateside by answering questions about his company, which makes equipment to recycle scrap metal. No need to pack the Fodor's: Gold Key representatives led Kneen on a four-day tour of Beijing and Shanghai, where he met five distributors and inspected three factories that had been prescreened by the department. Kneen's travelmates included an interpreter, a driver, and Gold Key advisers. The tour, introductions, and access to Commerce offices and computers set him back just $2,500. "It was worth every penny," says Kneen, who plans to start doing business with his Chinese contacts this year. "I accomplished in four days what would have taken four weeks."

If you're going to spend a couple of thousand dollars and 16 hours on planes, you don't want to get turned back at the airport -- or turned away by some prospect you've offended. The United States of America-China Chamber of Commerce can help: This Chicago-based nonprofit sponsors seminars on everything from landing a visa to following Chinese etiquette. (Use both hands when you proffer that business card; and whatever you do, don't whistle!) The organization also offers networking events around the country. A full membership costs about $10,000 a year; a la carte services are also available.

The thriftiest outreach comes from the U.S. Embassy, which has six offices in China's major cities, including Beijing and Shanghai. The embassy tracks upcoming trade shows there and provides free market analysis. And for just $50, it will translate your company's advertisement, post it on a Chinese-language website, and send you the contact information of interested customers. Those ads should, needless to say, be as scrupulously honest as your U.S. promotions. After all, you don't want to be accused of offering bull to China's shoppers.

Q. I'd like to be reviewed by my employees. Is there a Web-based service that can help?

Tom Cass, Aqua Laboratories
Amesbury, Mass.

Gathering your staff in a conference room and asking, "Who loves me? Show of hands!" isn't going to be effective here. If you're trying to boost your performance rather than your ego, you'll need to get out of your employees' way.

The Internet, as we all know, is anonymity's friend, and so many HR firms offer Web-based 360-degree review services (see Resources below). For about $300 a person, these companies e-mail links to a website where employees can log on and answer questions online. The software then compiles results in a report complete with charts and statistics.

The content of the review is up to you. James Hazen, a human resources psychologist and founder of Applied Behavioral Insights, an HR consulting firm in Pittsburgh, recommends asking employees to rate aspects of your performance on a scale of 1 to 5. Focus on such qualities as your ability to delegate responsibility and communicate your vision; don't ask about personal attributes. And be sure to leave space for employees to add comments. As with all things, timing is key. If you review employees in December, conduct your self-evaluation in June to limit the potential for intimidation. Give employees two weeks to fill out the forms, which should contain about 50 questions and take half an hour to complete.

Above all, make the reviews routine, advises Eric Davies, CEO of SparkSource, a marketing firm in Lexington, Mass. Davies didn't find honesty right off the bat: It took several years before his 28 employees felt comfortable enough to be candid. At first, he wasn't sure he could handle the criticism. Now, however, he looks forward to his annual passage through the wringer. "Seeing things from my employees' perspectives has helped me become a better boss," he says.

Resources

For more information on doing business in China, check out the U.S. government's exporting and trade services portal (www.export.gov), a partnership of 14 federal agencies, including the Department of Commerce and the SBA.

Online clearinghouse HR Guide (www.hr-guide.com) features links to software, consultants, online forms, and free research related to performance appraisals.

Looking for answers? Stumped by a thorny business problem? Let Inc. help. Send your questions to Askinc@inc.com.

Last updated: Jun 1, 2005




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