Success at APAC cover image
Success at APAC cover image • Art by Verónica Aguilar (Lettering) and Oliver González (Illustrations)

The 6 tips you need to succeed in APAC

Working in the Asia-Pacific region: the ultimate guide for an evolving intercultural digital ecosystem

Cristina Vázquez T
Design at Wizeline
Published in
11 min readMay 7, 2021


This is the first of a series of blog posts where we will be covering different topics regarding how our team has adapted to the region with a silicon-valley-like mindset. Through this series, we tackle topics such as:

  • The design ecosystem.
  • Challenges for digital consulting companies.
  • Strategies for a successful business engagement.
  • Perspective on the digital environment that should be considered when working in the Asia-Pacific region.

We wanted to gather a variety of opinions to obtain a broader view and a diversity of perspectives. We approached our peers from Wizeline Vietnam and design members from different parts of the world who have traveled to meet our customers in APAC or relocated to the region.

In this blog post, we focus on the importance of strengthening relationships and establishing a culture of trust to set the base for a successful partnership. Our interactions are shaped through culture and society, and what may be a good-intentioned gesture in one part of the world may be taken out of context in another place and cause a misunderstanding.

Here are some tips to help you cultivate a culture of support and trust across your engagements with customers and your team, whether you’re an individual contributor or in a management position:

1. Take your time to build trust and foster healthy relationships

In Asia, causing a good first impression is very important and sets the tone for future meetings. To an outsider, it can seem like a closed environment and hence hard to build new relationships.

Nhi Mai, QA Manager at Wizeline Vietnam, suggests that being proactive and friendly goes a long way; being the one who takes the first step and starts the conversation can be a game-changer. This applies to both internal teams and our interactions with customers. To make sure you have long-lasting relationships, building a partnership based on confidence and trust is essential. Also, find the right moment to push back and make sure you’re at a stage where there’s established trust. In her own words:

“To build trust, we need to be very professional and show how committed we are. Raise questions as soon as possible, show them you care about their business. We’ve gained [our clients] trust because we gave them timely advice. If we see problems on their side, it’s important to take a partnership and care mindset to build a strong relationship.”

It’s also important to recognize that trust can have different meanings across regions, and there are tons of ways to display it. Adam, Lead Designer who visited APAC a few months back, mentions a different perception about trust based on a human and friendly relationship, which can take time to consolidate. So be patient but persistent when reaching out to prospects!

Photo of Wizeline Vietnam office space
Wizeline Vietnam offices

2. It’s all about building a strong network and getting the right contacts

Word-of-mouth recommendations are the best way to get around and meet new customers. Companies are likely to reach out to you because you’ve done a good job for a friend or a company they work closely with. It’s widespread to look for people from your contacts list to get a new partnership.

Andy, a Senior UX Designer at Wizeline Vietnam, mentions that in comparison to her experience in Europe, building solid connections can come in handy at a consulting company:

“I’m used to companies sending Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to different agencies and choosing the one that better matches their needs. But here, the interactions are different. As a customer, when I need to develop a new digital product, I reach out to my contacts to complete the project. The network is super important here.”

The formula seems simple: if someone I trust trusts you, we can start talking business. Easier said than done since there’s a long way between talking and closing a deal. It is essential to build trust before getting into business. Regie, Delivery Manager of the region, agrees:

“It is very relationship-based. You have to know someone who knows someone who is trusted. This often translates to longer closing cycles.”

3. Read the room and make sure to address people timely and respectfully

Raise issues at the right moment and with the right person to avoid misunderstandings. Some Asian cultures highly rely on a hierarchical structure, which happens to be the case in most of Southeast Asia, Japan, and Korea. Hierarchy has been vital to organize and structure their society, so never underestimate the importance of seniority, rank, or even status.

This hierarchical structure happens to reflect into the work environment through protocols and rituals that need to be followed: how to behave, greet others, do introductions, and even how to ask questions and to whom can vary across countries. Here’s what Hoa, Project Manager at Wizeline Vietnam, had to share regarding first engagements in Vietnam:

“When gathered in a room for a first engagement, someone presents everyone at the table. People with high positions don’t usually introduce themselves. It’s also important to give people their right place; it’s custom to direct questions to the person with the higher position or role.”

But there’s a positive side to these hidden rules: as a foreigner, you’re allowed a bump or two. As Brenn, our Development Lead in Vietnam, mentions, we can make a couple of etiquette mistakes and not be held accountable. Yet, small gestures and attempts to immerse ourselves in the culture come highly appreciated.

Adam, who had the opportunity of working with a Thailandese company, mentions that a kind gesture is an important factor in building a meaningful partnership:

“I’ve learned a couple of things during my meetings. Something that I enjoyed is how people greet before starting and ending the meeting. They say ‘Thank You’, putting their hands together to show their respect. They do it in Thai, so the client was pretty surprised when I replied. They really appreciated the gesture!”

A practice that has helped me navigate any new client engagement is always being aware of the cultural context. One fantastic tip that Aditi, Design Manager at Wizeline, shared with me a while ago is looking people up on LinkedIn before an important meeting or introduction. This can help you prepare by taking time to research your client’s industry and anticipate any cultural differences. It also helps to know in advance the conversation style you’ll need to employ to cause a good impression and come off as a trustworthy expert.

Photo of team activity with legos
Creative team exercise

4. Tangible is a driver for closing the deal

Some clients in the US or Europe may respond well to discussions about processes and methodologies, but this may not always be the case in APAC. They value efficacy and tangible deliverables. For them, it’s reassuring to see that what you’re building together has a shape and measurable growth. As Brenn stated:

“People don’t want to buy abstract concepts. They want experts and a product.”

Andy mentions that showcasing real examples of previously made products helps:

“They want to see something tangible. You can talk about methodologies, the skills of the team, but what I’ve seen is they want to see an example of the final product we can actually deliver to them.”

This is also true for our customers in Australia. Joel, our Design Director, when running a workshop with our customers in Sydney, mentioned that:

“The prototype helped seal the deal, moving to the solution space very quickly helped establish confidence.”

5. Communication is in the small details

In APAC, large group conversations can be tricky to manage since people tend to shy away from them for fear of having to take full responsibility or saying something wrong. One-on-one conversations flow much more naturally, given the natural tendency to save face when in a group. Andy mentions:

“ It takes more effort to communicate; my main struggle is people don’t communicate a lot or don’t want to face a complicated situation or highlight an issue or problem.”

Much of the communication relies on non-verbal cues, which are easier to identify face to face. One-on-one meetings can help reduce friction and lead to a smoother conversation. Meeting for a cup of coffee, some drinks, or even karaoke can help seal the deal. The thing is, they want to be able to decide first if they can trust you before committing to do business with you. So if you’re struggling to keep an open communication, here are some tips from our team to get the conversations going:

  • Direct your questions. In the words of Hoa: “Don’t shoot questions out in the open, no one will answer. Direct questions to a person; if they don’t know the answer, they’ll redirect it to the appropriate person.”
  • Follow up with your team, Ivonne mentions: “My team had a completely different working style; they were mostly used to following instructions, concentrating on the project, and not asking questions. I had to follow up separately just to make sure we were on the same page.”
  • Everyone is concerned about making communication mistakes. It is expected that in digital environments, there’s an ‘in-between language,’ that being English or any other language in the region the larger group speaks. Keep in mind that this may not be a native language but a second or third learned language, so everyone is concerned about making a communication mistake and sending the wrong message. Ask questions, reiterate key points of the conversation, and even paraphrase from time to time to confirm you’re all having the same understanding.

6. Language, the ultimate barrier

You may have suspected it from the beginning, and you’re right! Language is the ultimate barrier. It can add complexity when reaching an agreement given the different accents. Ivonne and Joel both suggest trying to familiarize yourself with the accent and engaging in some small talk, so you give your brain time to adapt. You’ll see that after a while, you’ll be able to follow up easily.

Ivonne, one of our Senior UX Designers from Wizeline Mexico who traveled to the region in 2019, mentions that when working on an intercultural team, there were some pains in this regard:

“A big consideration was the language. We were working with people from Asia that have different accents, that impacted on the understanding of the project.”

And as Joel mentioned, it’s ok to ask a couple of times if they can repeat their thought; what is important is that everybody gets the message. Yet always aim for being time effective:

“Try to get as familiar as possible with the accent. When traveling alone, you may run into some of these issues; it makes it difficult even though people can be patient and effective with their time.”

As general advice, when traveling for workshops or meetings where you know there will be diverse backgrounds, get someone else involved. Having a partner can help you by bringing a second pair of ears into the game and collecting notes. But perhaps the ultimate partner is someone who’s native to the language or region, kind of like a cultural advocate.

Diversity image
Diversity image • Art by Verónica Aguilar (Lettering) and Oliver González (Illustrations)

Conclusion: APAC is synonymous with diversity

Customs change a lot from place to place. Even smaller communities within a country can present their unique trades. Each engagement benefits from being tailored given the uniqueness of each company, industry, and culture. In that regard, Regie mentions that:

“One thing to note about APAC is that it is a very diverse region. What works in Australia will not work in Malaysia, what clicks in Malaysia will not necessarily do so in Thailand, and so on. The approach has to be very tailored, with each cultural aspect considered. An added complexity will be that you have a Western leadership and local culture in one company, which needs further balancing.”

The term APAC is a broad and complex construct. While it helps define a geographical region, it doesn’t describe or consider all the cultural differences. You can look at each country for inspiration. The closer look you take, the more complex, unique, and nuanced details from each culture and identity will emerge.

Working in digital spaces has enabled us to reach out to other countries and expand internationally. Hence, as we move toward intercultural environments, we need to remember to be culturally conscious and approach our differences positively and flexibly. Adapting your working style or communication style will enable you to make a long-lasting positive impact on the teams you work with and the customers you approach.

👉 Up next:

Design at APAC. Learn about some of the traits that come in handy as a designer working with customers and teams in an Asia-Pacific context!

📚 Other resources:

Erin Mayer, author and professor, is one of our main go-to’s for information:

  • Adam recommends reading The Cultural Map book by her.
    “This book tells you about a framework that would help you read the several layers of culture. I read that the perception of an organization changes from culture to culture, especially for Asian ones; they tend to organize and have relationships with peers at work, to be very structured, and hierarchical… given their vertical structure they respect people in a higher position.”
  • Being the Boss in Brussels, Boston, and Beijing article from the Harvard Business Review.
  • Navigating the cultural minefield article from the Harvard Business Review.

📝 Author’s note

When I arrived in Vietnam, with zero knowledge about the language, I quickly realized how little I knew about etiquette and basic human interactions there. My role as a UX designer became a much broader one: taking care of team dynamics, being a bridge between my peers in Mexico and Vietnam and my customer in Australia.

At that time, I really wished there was a guide that could give me a bit of direction. I even interviewed some of my peers before arriving, yet still felt completely off. This is an attempt to make it easier for others, and a compilation of all the wonderful advice I gathered during my time in Vietnam.

✨ Special thanks

I want to recognize the incredible talent behind the art that embellishes these words. Thanks to Verónica Aguilar for the fantastic lettering and to Oliver González for the amazing illustrations. Also, a big round of kudos to them for helping me conduct some of the interviews. Thanks to Sayuri Santibáñez, Aditi Ruiz, and Josias Rico García for their help proofreading and editing this article!

And last but not least: thanks to Adam, Aditi, Andy, Brenn, Dany, Hoa, Ivonne, Joel, Manuel, Monde, Nhi Mai, and Regie, whose advice and guidance helped me navigate a new environment and put together this list for our readers to benefit from!



Cristina Vázquez T
Design at Wizeline

Product Designer @Cerby. Professional napper. Feminist. Also into woodworking.