Business meeting etiquette

Italy-flag-140The safest practice when organising and attending meetings in Italy is to ‘act local’; your business partner will appreciate your cultural sensitivity. The following sections should provide you with some useful information on  local attitudes to establishing and running business meetings,  conducting negotiations, etc.

Importance of Business Meeting

Italians, like most south European people, are relationship-oriented. They usually prefer to establish direct relationships, even superficially, before “getting down” to business.

The establishment of a reciprocal climate of trust and respect is as important as the exchange of information and details about a specific business proposal.

Meetings are a way to get a deeper and common understanding of an issue rather than forming the conclusive part of a decision making process, so in this sense, they are more exploratory and analysis-oriented than decision-oriented.

The goal of early contact and particularly of the first meeting is to provide all the information needed regarding a proposal and, in particular, to establish a reciprocal climate of trust and respect.

Business Meeting planning

In order to overcome possible language barriers, written forms of communication are preferred for a first approach. In this case, either a fax or a letter is appropriate to present your idea and pave the way for  a subsequent phone call or visit. Whenever possible, an introduction by someone who is already connected to the company would be useful.

If you only have a general reference for  the company you wish to approach, your phone call should be addressed to a secretary. You might explain who you are and why you are contacting the company, referring to  your previous fax or e-mail, and giving the name of the person you would like to meet.

Meetings are often organised in the company offices after 10.00 am or in the early afternoon, i.e. 3.00 pm.

Negotiation process

Be prepared for lengthy negotiations. Often negotiations are conducted slowly, both because Italians tend to carefully evaluate advantages and risks, and because of the hierarchical decision-making process of Italian companies.

During the negotiations, you might be contacting and/or providing information to different people with specific roles (technical, financial, market oriented) who have limited decisional authority on the matter being negotiated. Most often, they will report to their boss to take a specific decision, thus slowing down the process.

Final decisions, due to rigid hierarchical management structures are centralised and taken by the chairman.

Be prepared, on the other hand, to deal with new aspects introduced by the “creative” individuals involved in the negotiation.

Management often adopts short/medium term plans and strategies that can be repeatedly modified or improved/adjusted to the current situation.

This may also introduce sudden changes during negotiations. During negotiations, Italians give importance to verbal commitments and the final contract is certainly based on previous informal agreements.

Be patient, even when the timescale for conducting business is short, it is important to give time to your Italian partners. A sense of urgency is often taken as an attempt to weaken one’s bargaining position. On the other hand, once the agreement has been reached, your Italian partner will be strongly convinced that he/she has made the best decision!

Meeting protocol

Handshaking is common on all business and social occasions. The handshake is firm but not too long. Upon introductions and departures, people shake hands individually with all members of a group.

In the case of a very friendly or family relationship, people may embrace and/or “kiss” on either cheek.

In this case, “kissing” is done by simply pressing the sides of the face together.

When being introduced you can simply say “piacere” (i.e. it is a pleasure) and pronounce your name clearly while shaking hands.If no one is giving a formal introduction, it is proper to shake hands and introduce yourself.

A daily greeting such as “buongiorno” or “buonasera” (i.e. good morning, good evening) is generally expected upon arrival and when entering an office, shop, restaurant, etc.

Before leaving you can say “arrivederci” (“see you”) or “a presto” (“see you soon”).

How to Run a Business Meeting

Dressing formally is generally required, in particular for first meetings, to make a serious and positive impression.

During meetings, it is uncommon to have a secretary taking notes and even the participants themselves tend to only make a few short notes.

Interrupting a speaker in discussions and meetings is tolerated as a way of reaching conclusions quickly or to allow for the introduction of new elements as soon as they surface.

Often several people may speak simultaneously during a meeting, thus creating two or more “micromeetings”. Also, especially during preliminary meetings, Italians may not follow agendas strictly.

Mobile phones are generally switched off or set to “silent” mode during business meetings. However, it is not unusual to hear a mobile ring during meetings or public conferences.

Follow up letter after meeting with client

After a meeting, especially if minutes were not taken and language was an issue, it is  good practice to summarize your understanding of the conclusions and send this  to your Italian partner for confirmation, clarity and mutual approval.

Italians tend to be enthusiastic about joining new project ideas even if a detailed work plan has not been prepared. On the other hand, they tend to follow several projects and ideas in parallel. Thus, as their interest can be diverted to other topics, be prepared to face “higher” and “lower” attention phases and do not be upset by such behavior.

Business meals

It is common that business meetings end with an invitation to eati out, typically in a carefully selected restaurant, as a way to socialize and establish a  closer relationship.

According to circumstances and time constraints, the invitation might be either for lunch or, often preferably, for dinner.

Lunch is still the main meal of the day and it comprises  several courses. However, lunch during the working day is very quick and informal. A break for lunch during a meeting might feature simple sandwiches or possibly a single dish in a restaurant (e.g., pasta, or salad, or cheese, etc.).

Usually, lunch begins after 1.00 p.m. Dinner time is around 8.00 p.m. In southern regions, especially during the summer, dinner time is delayed until 9 p.m. and even 10 p.m.

A moderate consumption of wine during the meal is considered a way to socialize. However, drinking too much or getting drunk is normally not accepted and is considered gauche.

The most common way to begin lunch or dinner is “buon appetito” (i.e. enjoy your lunch). The most usual toast for drinking is “salute” (i.e. to your health) or informally, “cin cin”.

To alert the waiter, try to make eye contact. If necessary, you may raise your finger or hands to call a waiter saying “senta” (literally, “please, listen”), “il conto” (literally, “the bill”) etc.

According to Italian etiquette, the host always pays the bill. The person invited may offer to pay the bill but, usually, the host will decline. The tip is included in the bill but it can be appropriate to leave an additional tip, often about 5% of the total amount. Lunch begins with an appetizer (“antipasto”) followed by pasta or soup (“primo piatto”, i.e. first course), a main course with salad (“secondo piatto”), dessert and/or cheese and fruits. These several courses are served in single portions.  According to  “good Italian tradition” any meal should end with a cup of strong “espresso” coffee. Decaffeinated coffee is often simply indicated as “hag” (after a popular brand of decaffeinated coffee).

Italy is characterised by a wonderful and very rich variety of regional cooking: dishes like “tortellini” and “lasagna” (Emilia Romagna), “pasta al pesto” (Liguria), “pizza Napoletana” (Campania), “polenta” (Lombardia) and a large variety of fresh pasta. Southern Regions and Islands present a rich variety of delicious dishes based on fish, vegetables, olive oil, cheeses and cakes.

White wine, in Italian “vino bianco” is typically served with fish and salad and red wine, in Italian “vino rosso” is served with meat, cheese and vegetables. Sweeter wines, such as “moscato” or “passito”, can be served with dessert.

Business Meeting tips

Dress “formally” to make a serious, no-nonsense impression. Italians give importance to visual appearances and are accustomed to very high quality clothing and accessories. Many of the greatest designers in the world are Italian.

Allow your Italian partner to make a “bella figura” (good impression) on you, by letting him/her show his/her qualities and successes by expressing appreciation for the hospitality offered.

Accept your partner’s invitations for lunch or dinner as a way to develop your relationship and to gain trust.

Be patient. Before tackling the details of your business idea, be sure that a reciprocal climate of trust is established between you and your business partner. Also, be prepared for extensive discussion before final decisions are reached.

Be prepared to answer all sorts of questions from your “curious” Italian partners: this clearly indicates interest in what you are saying.

Avoid showing your impatience to wrap up the negotiation: the more important the contract, the more time is required to secure a response from your Italian partner.

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