China Has Switched Over to Digital
An Interview with Stefan Weigand, Managing Director Detecon Consulting in China
China appears to have passed the peak of the pandemic. The number of confirmed new infections is decreasing at a significant rate. The approximately 60 million inhabitants of Hubei province and its metropolis of Wuhan have no longer been under forced quarantine since 24 March. Stefan Weigand, CEO of Detecon Consulting in China since 2004, lives in Beijing and has spent several weeks in the Chinese capital during the crisis months. Most recently under quarantine himself. But the work goes on despite everything because in China feet never stop moving. The strategy consultant talks about how the Chinese are dealing with the crisis and what contribution digitalization is making to the maintenance of contact with clients.
Mr. Weigand, how are you doing in Beijing?
Stefan Weigand: Fine. I’m under quarantine, but I’m healthy. Working from home has been mandatory for us for almost three months. Even if we consultants were to take a domestic flight right now, we would first have to spend 14 days in quarantine when we reached our destination. So visits to clients are out of the question. And when I look out over the city from my apartment window, I still see very few people on the street. The Chinese are complying strictly with government guidelines, and official figures indicate that this is evidently good for the country. I also have the impression that the Chinese have a very strong sense of how they themselves could be a risk to others. They stay at home because they do not want to infect others.
And what is Detecon doing in China? Business has presumably come more or less to a standstill.
At first, we were afraid that our consulting services would no longer be in demand and that companies would have more important issues than strategic concepts on the table. In the past, consulting was always associated with travel, especially since the Chinese in our business prefer personal contact. So we wondered whether consulting would even be possible without traveling. All the workshops we had scheduled with our clients had to be cancelled. There were no more tender procedures where we could compete in person. In other words, it was hard to imagine how the situation could be any worse. Business was supposed to resume at the beginning of February when the Chinese New Year holidays were over.
Nevertheless, existing projects continued and Detecon was able to acquire new projects with existing clients and even new clients. How did that happen?
The Chinese are extremely flexible, pragmatic, and agile. If the face-to-face paths no longer work, they simply use the existing technology without all too much ado. We have switched our projects completely over to digital channels, use video conferencing tools or the cloud, and deliver remotely. There was no question in my mind that this would work from a technological standpoint. But since the Chinese really like to talk to you in person, I thought our services would no longer be in such high demand. But on the contrary, we have been able to carry out more than 40 projects remotely.
Is it possible to acquire new clients and projects even during a crisis?
Acquisition is indeed a major challenge at the moment. Surprisingly, however, we have encountered enormous flexibility. The offer formats have been changed from on-site to online presentations. So we have been able to acquire several new projects in the telecommunications and automotive industries because of the daily remote support for our clients. My impression is that the crisis is even causing a shift in cultural values. The Chinese simply refrain from personal contacts for the obvious reasons and otherwise go about their business as usual. When the crisis is over, they will probably start to place a high value on personal contact again.
What formats are you using for marketing?
For the first time ever (and in response to the pandemic), we launched a nationwide real-time streaming webinar; the subject of this premiere was the transformation of the Chinese ICT industry in the 5G era. The live webinar was streamed to approximately 500 participants throughout China. The audience participated very actively in the discussions, and we posted an excellent average attendance time, which is not always the case with webinars. Participants often dial in briefly, check out the topic, and then leave again quickly. This was such a success that we will continue the series with further webinars.
What digital tools do the Chinese use for work?
Often the same ones they use privately. WeChat, for example, is similar to WhatsApp. It is extremely practical in a professional environment for messaging, telephone calls, video conferences, or data transfer. We also use this app for our contact with clients or for marketing purposes. We even distribute training material via WeChat, then talk to clients, or use it for expert videos and live streams. This is all everyday business in China. We also used WeChat for our first webinar.
WeChat seems to be more than just an app.
We mostly use native apps, i.e., apps that a provider has developed for its own purpose and makes available, but that offer a limited range of functions. WeChat is like a small operating system from which you can use a lot of mini apps directly without first installing them.
It’s similar to Microsoft’s Office 365, which allows me to use several programs like Word, Excel, and so on, but on WeChat, you can also add and embed functions from external service providers so that you no longer have to switch back and forth between separate apps. This has a decisive advantage for our work – there is a general consensus regarding the use of this communication platform. So you do not have to use different platforms for different clients. That simplifies cooperation.
DingDing appears to be another tool that is very popular in China.
DingDing from Alibaba is particularly suitable for corporate communications. Using DingDing, you can hold team meetings via video stream and exchange data. For example, we discussed an offer with one client on DingDing. Simply upload it to the tool, discuss it, and modify it right in the app. A trip and long on-site meetings aren’t necessary. Other tools are Tencent Meeting and Zoom, which we also use for discussions of tenders. In recent weeks, we have used such tools to participate in more than ten tendering procedures – and have even been able to win a couple of them.
Tools alone do not solve the communication problems. Don’t people have to have the right attitude towards such digital communication channels as well?
Absolutely. The willingness of the Chinese to communicate digitally is much greater than in Europe. And the infrastructure is significantly better. This great willingness to communicate digitally has meant that, although the Chinese like to maintain personal contact, we were able to switch to digital channels from one moment to the next, so to speak. The Chinese are very pragmatic in this sense. If something doesn’t work as usual, they simply switch to something else. The Chinese want things to keep moving.
What have you learned from your experience of recent weeks?
Everyone in our team had an extremely strong will to keep our company alive. This also includes the clear readiness to want to work anywhere and anytime. I’m saying we should confront this situation with plenty of commitment and a plan. Companies should have a business continuity plan up their sleeve that can help them survive even during such extreme crises. And the crisis really should make it clear to every company that digitalization can help keep the business running. Next, they need a standard communication platform. We and our clients used the same communication channel for different formats. That greatly simplifies communication. And last, but not least, there must be trust and confidence. We trust and support one another and send unambiguous signals to our clients: We are here and can support you in this difficult situation. Let’s keep working together.
Dr. Stefan Weigand
has been CEO of Detecon Consulting Co., Ltd., located in Beijing, Qingdao, and Guangzhou, since 2004. His consulting work focuses on business strategies and digital transformation in the sectors telecommunications, high tech, and automotive.