Meeting etiquette

Spain-flag-140Business meetings

The ways business meetings are conducted differ between different countries. Although there might be some regional variations, there are usually a number of typical characteristics that you should be aware of when conducting business in that country.

The way business is conducted in Spain is more relaxed compared to other Western European nations; you should be prepared for rather time-consuming and lengthy negotiations. You should allow sufficient time in your schedule for getting to know your business partners properly, before the start of negotiations. Always bear in mind that social bonds must be built first, before business can be discussed. A sound relationship is an integral part of successful negotiations in Spain. In many cases, social bonds serve to guarantee agreements and may even replace written contracts. Often, written statements are not given as much importance as in, for instance, the UK or Germany.

When preparing for business negotiations in a foreign country, it is good to bear in mind that the key to successful negotiation is to respect the culture, values and traditions of your prospective partners.

Importance of business meetings

Generally, Spaniards like to interact with people from abroad as they still believe in the superiority of products and services coming from abroad. You can expect your Spanish counterpart to be curious about the products or services you offer and ask additional questions.

As mentioned before, Spanish prefer to know people before starting a business relationship, therefore, it is advisable to be open with any questions asked about your business or family life. Spaniards place great emphasis on trust and honesty, so this should be given serious consideration before arranging a first meeting.

Business meeting planning

When setting up a meeting, it is recommended to make appointments in advance and confirm them by letter, fax or email just before your arrival. This will avoid any confusion or misunderstanding and save time, if meetings have to be re-arranged. When arranging the initial meeting, it is advisable to choose a time around mid-morning. This will avoid any issues with siesta breaks, when the foreign business traveller is unfamiliar with the working practices of a particular business.

Spain has the highest number of public holidays in Europe, with at least fourteen, mostly national, but also regional and local. If a public holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, many people take a four-day weekend, known as ‘hacer puente’. In addition, the majority of towns and villages have important annual fiestas and/or ferias that may last several days. So, it is advisable to check regional and local calendars, as well as the list of national holidays, before arranging meetings and making travel plans.

In Spanish business culture, hierarchy and position are valued highly and it is advisable to arrange meetings between representatives of an equivalent position and professional status. Spanish business culture places great emphasis on authority within organisations and decisions will be made by the most senior manager present in a meeting. Senior managers tend to be far removed from more junior colleagues. Generally, subordinates are required to respect their managers and follow the instructions given to them. Spaniards tend to work well in teams with managers seeing themselves as team players, even though there is usually a ‘closed-door’ approach to management.

Visitors to Spain should be aware that there are two quite distinct business cultures. On the one hand, there are the bigger and newer, or reformed, industries that have received large amounts of foreign investment and have adopted modern, international management techniques. There are also more traditional small to medium enterprises and family businesses that account for the majority of Spain’s GDP. The leading banks, which still constitute the business elite, are situated somewhere in the middle.

Negotiation process

It is important to begin negotiations only after you have developed a personal relationship and a certain level of trust with your Spanish counterparts.  Any meeting will normally begin with discussing general matters and catching up with each other on a personal level in order to build and establish a solid working relationship.   Feelings and relationships play much more of an important role for Spaniards than facts and the personal relationships should be your primary focus.

For the business matters to be discussed during a meeting, it is important to follow a set agenda so that the discussion does not stray too far from the topic. You should ensure that your presentation is clear and that everyone in the meeting is able to follow and understand the discussion. Be particularly careful here since Spanish people will not admit that they are having difficulties in front of others, as the loss of face is viewed negatively in Spain. It is therefore recommended that you provide a printout of the executive summary of your presentation in Spanish.

As Spain is a hierarchical country, final decisions are only made by the most senior managers in the company. In your business dealings you may never actually meet the person who ultimately makes the decision concerning your proposals. This is a normal way of doing business in Spain that affects everyone, and you should not let it put you off or make you feel disadvantaged.

The Spanish are traditionally very thorough and highly likely to review every detail to make certain all the commitments and implications are fully understood. Once a verbal agreement has been made, a full contract will then be written up and circulated for review and approval within a reasonable period of time.

Meeting protocol

An initial introduction at business and social meetings would usually mean a formal handshake, while maintaining direct eye contact with your host.

Before the formalities of a meeting, you should spend time getting to know your host and expect to discuss general informal subjects, such as the weather, family, or travel arrangements and how your journey was.

When you arrive for appointment, it is advisable to present your business card to the receptionist, which ideally should be printed in Spanish and English with the Spanish side facing up.

When attending a meeting with a new business partner for the first time, it is advisable to take plenty of information about your company that you can give out. Product samples, demonstrations and working examples of your services should also be used where appropriate. The first meeting is generally formal and is used as a means to get to know each other. When taking printed material to meetings, ensure both English and Spanish versions are available.

How to run a business meeting

In Spain, decisions are usually not made during meetings, which tend to be mainly for discussion and the exchange of ideas. Furthermore, decision-making can be slow as various levels of management need to be consulted. Therefore, you should make sure you are conducting negotiations with the person who has decision-making authority within the company.

The majority of Spaniards do not give their opinion at meetings. So, watching non-verbal clues is crucial for the success of negotiations. You may find that a very effective way of gaining the acceptance of Spanish business associates is simply by conforming to their ways of doing things and trying to understand them.

This will help you to gain respect for their culture, which in turn will make your Spanish counterparts respect you. Another element of Spanish culture that impacts significantly on the course of business meetings is the concept of time. Spanish people usually do not hurry; so don’t be surprised if your Spanish counterparts are late for a meeting or do not meet a deadline on time. When dealing with the Spanish, extreme patience and respect for their culture is required for successful negotiations.

At meetings you may find that several people are speaking at once and interruptions are common. This is a cultural phenomenon and often indicates genuine interest in the discussion.

Follow up letter after meeting with client

It is always important to follow-up after the completion of a business deal to express thanks and to reinforce the personal relationships that have been created.

Any action items should be followed up quickly, to ensure that the partnership does not lose momentum and establish a pattern of credibility and operational expectations.

As the relationship develops, it is acceptable to invite your Spanish counterpart out to more informal social gatherings, such as at a restaurant or dinner party.

Business meals

The Spanish enjoy meals as a social activity and do not necessarily expect to discuss business at the table. If your intention is to use a meal or drinks invitation as an opportunity to talk about business matters, it is best to include that information in the invitation and avoid any misunderstanding.

It is general practice to avoid any discussion of financial matters over dinner and concentrate on establishing the personal relationship, which will help in later discussions.

Lunch, rather than dinner, is usually the best time for a ‘business’ meal, beginning between 1pm and 2pm. Depending on the circumstances, this could either be a casual meal at a local café or an extended lunch over the course of several hours in a fine restaurant.

Colleagues regularly eat lunch together, increasingly in the staff canteen, but different ranks do not sit together and the boss usually makes a point of eating off the premises, with peers from other companies.

Breakfast meetings are not very popular in Spain and are never scheduled before 8.30am. Also, because many Spaniards still go home for lunch, you should not be surprised if lunch invitations are declined.

By law, the service charge is included in the bill in Spanish restaurants, hotels, etc. It is customary, however, to round up the amount of the bill and leave small change in cafes and bars. In cases where the service has been exemplary, you may choose to leave an additional tip of around 5%.

Eating out in Spain is exceptionally popular and generally considered to be part of the national culture. The traditional meal of Tapas consists of small dishes of a variety of different foods, from seafood to potatoes, and is very popular with locals and tourists alike. Spain has extensive coastlines, such that fish and seafood are a major natural resource and primary ingredient in many traditional dishes; olive oil is an essential ingredient for all Spanish cooking.  Paella is a special favourite food that the Spanish enjoy, which is made with rice and shellfish.

While tastes and dishes vary throughout this large country, there are some common characteristics. Olive oil, garlic and onions are used in the majority of dishes in Spanish kitchens. It is common practice to drink wine or sangria over dinner, and it is usual to start a meal with bread and olives as an appetiser. Everyday desserts are usually a piece of fruit or dairy product, whereas cakes, large flans and puddings tend to be reserved for special occasions.

Wine is the most popular drink served at dinner, usually a Rioja or Valdepenas. Coffee is drunk in large amounts in Spain. A small cup of strong black coffee is known as a ‘café solo’ and a coffee with milk is a ‘café con leche’. Bottled water, both still and sparkling, is also drunk in large amounts by the Spanish as the quality has historically been much better than tap water.

Business Meeting tips

Spaniards pay attention on what they say and how they say it.

Especially when dealing with outsiders, Spaniards will often insist that everything is in perfect order, even when this is not the case. This is a ‘face-saving’ measure to appear competent and in control. The foreign visitor should pay close attention during conversations with Spanish contacts to discern the sincerity or veracity of what is being said.

It is important to be aware that numbers can be particularly unreliable in Spanish culture. Spanish managers tend to be averse to budgets and action plans and they prefer oral, face-to-face communication to the written form.

Because of the reluctance among Spaniards to reveal bad news, it is advisable to have where possible, a network of independent, disinterested contacts that can check or interpret what you are being told. Spaniards that have worked or been educated outside Spain will be a valuable resource in this respect, since they are more likely to be sympathetic and supportive in your desire to know the truth.

It is important that you stay in touch with your Spanish counterparts, helping to implement what has been agreed during the business discussions. However, it is important that sensitivity is shown towards the pride that the Spanish feel in being able to handle things independently. It is important therefore that you should never appear intrusive, but always be available. It is recommended that you show an interest in learning about life in Spain, while providing them with the resources and information they need to reach their objectives.

In line with some European countries relatively few women are yet in senior management positions in Spain. Businesswomen travelling to Spain will however be treated with respect. It is important though that female business travellers dress and behave in a professional manner at all times. Machismo remains a very important aspect of the mentality of many Spanish men, who still feel the need to be in control of all situations. Having said this, most Spanish men are usually willing to accept a lunch or dinner invitation from an overseas businesswoman.

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