Meeting etiquette

Estonia FlagBusiness meetings in Estonia

Business meetings in Estonia are usually formal. The proper etiquette is for the team’s most senior figure to open proceedings with introductions and a short speech. Next, the most senior member of the other team will speak to thank the hosts and make similar introductions. If small talk occurs, it is short and simple.

Business presentations should be accurate and straightforward, and devoid of any high-pressure sales tactics. Ensuring that you are able to deliver everything that you have committed to, will be crucial in gaining the trust of your Estonian partners.

It is fairly common for several meetings to take place before business related decisions are made. This is due to the nature of Estonian business which tends to be hierarchical and necessitates consultations with senior colleagues.

Since business culture in Estonia tends to be quite formal,  it is therefore critical to follow the established protocol.

It is necessary to always book appointments in advance, and prior to the meeting taking place, to send an agenda of what will be discussed. Although many Estonians are able to speak English, an effort to translate any correspondence and materials into Estonian will be appreciated.

The usual form of greeting is good eye contact followed by a firm handshake. Business cards are usually exchanged upon meeting. Titles and surnames should always be used when addressing Estonian contacts, as first names generally do not tend to be used in business here. As this is a status conscious society, you should be particularly respectful and deferential to those in  senior positions.

In Estonian business there are many women, although not always in the high positions for which they may be qualified, and mildly flirtatious behaviour between the sexes in business settings is fairly commonplace and considered inoffensive here.

Estonians are usually reserved and formal during meetings, and rarely show emotion. Their communication style is direct and straightforward, however, at the same time they will be tactful to avoid embarrassing a meeting partner or damaging a relationship. They may appear stubborn on occasion, but it should be remembered that self-restraint is highly valued here, so  try not to become angry or impatient.

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Importance of Business meetings

Business meetings tend to be formal, especially  in the early stages of a working relationship and small talk is usually kept to  a minimum. The introductory speech in the majority of cases is given by the most senior person present.

During the first meeting, Estonians are formal and reserved; you should have a business card ready for introductions and this should be in Estonian and  English. The Estonian side should be face up and the card should also show your position at work.

Estonians do not need “ice breaking” to start the meeting. They run the meeting according to the agenda and get straight to the point.

If you are a very animated speaker with a loud voice, you will need to tone down your gesticulations and the volume of your voice, in order to match the local style. Estonians do not like a casual attitude towards business, especially in foreigners therefore, you should assume a formal demeanour. Because Estonians prefer to do business with friends, it is advisable to take advantage of opportunities to socialise, such as lunches and dinners, to get to know your hosts and build an individual personal relationship with them.

Bear in mind that it can take several meetings to reach an agreement. Most Estonian companies are very hierarchical so all major decisions are made by the management.  If the managing director is not in attendance, then the meeting automatically becomes merely a forum for the exchange of ideas. The proposal will be presented to the management afterwards and they will make a decision based on this.

Estonians prefer to have all agreements on paper, signed and sealed. Verbal agreement is good, but it is not legally binding. All agreements, deadlines, procedures and so on are written up in either Estonian, English or Russian and signed by both sides.

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Business meeting planning

When proposing a meeting, always offer several dates so that your Estonian partner can choose a date, that  is mutually convenient. At this point, mention the subject that will be under discussion, state why you require the meeting and request the presence of any participants you wish to meet. Bear in mind that decisions are usually made by senior management, so if you need decisions to be made quickly,  ask them to attend the meeting.

Meetings in Estonia are usually attended by those of similar status / seniority, and for this reason, it is imperative that you send a list of the people coming with you, together with a brief biographical account of each person, so that the Estonian company can have people of equivalent position or rank, attend the meeting.

It is advisable to obtain a written confirmation of the place and time of the meeting and of the intended attendees (name and position).

If you cannot participate in a meeting always call or write to cancel the meeting.

The best time to arrange a business meeting is between 9am -1pm, taking into account the possibility of a business lunch after 12:30pm. The host will be in charge of reserving the venue, the meeting room and the refreshments.

Please always agree with your partner on the language of the meeting. If an interpreter is needed, let your host know whether you are taking one with you, otherwise ask them to bring one. They will know where to go for a professional/industry specific translator.

In the unlikely event that they do not know your business or the products you are selling, take some brochures, sample products or other informative material with you.

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Negotiation Process

Business negotiations can be very tough in Estonia. Estonians do not change their minds easily, once they have decided what to do. A strong scepticism is inherent in the  Estonian mentality, which may explain why Estonian businessmen and women often require several days to analyze a problem. Thus, negotiating an agreement can take longer than it would in Western Europe. It is important to bear in mind that an Estonian does not like to feel rushed.

The main thing is to be specific and be detailed in your presentation during the negotiation period. The key to success in doing business with Estonians is politeness combined with competence.

Because of their reserved and unemotional attitude, it is inadvisable for you to show too much emotion. Conversely, modesty may be viewed as a weakness.

Business negotiation is, for Estonians, similar to a duel, and they fight to win. They have no problem saying “NO” and they do not like to change their position, once they have chosen it. They do not look to the future; they want immediate gratification (profit).

The time taken over negotiations depends on the attitude of the partners and the nature of the sector. Negotiation in the public sector usually takes much longer than doing business in the private sector.

When presenting a project, make sure you have done your research because you have to give good reasons for the involvement of both parties. The main question of interest is how beneficial it will be for the host company.

Decisions are made by the management, so do not expect  these to be made immediately after or during the meeting. If no-one from the management was involved in the meeting, they will have to be briefed about your proposal and to consider it before a decision is reached.

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Meeting protocol

To greet your partner, look them straight in the eyes, shake hands firmly and state your name clearly. Make sure, when shaking hands, that you do so either inside or outside the room, but never in the doorway as Estonians believe that this  brings bad luck. Then offer your business card with the Estonian side facing up. Your Estonian partner will do the same and they will have their business cards either in  English or in English and Russian.

Listen carefully when your partner pronounces their name, so that you have an idea of how to pronounce it later. Place their business card in front of you so that you can have a quick read if you have to address the person. You will need to shake hands with all the participants, at the beginning and the end of the meeting.

When introduced, address your counterparts by their family name. This is very important because, although Estonians are proud of their education, they do not use academic titles.  The most senior Estonian at the meeting will begin with a welcoming speech and your team should respond in the same way.

At the beginning of a business relationship, it is advisable to be formal. Estonia is a formal society and it is a good idea to let your partner propose any friendly or informal terms. Your host may invite you to call him by his Christian/first name. This shows that the business meeting is continuing satisfactorily, but it does not necessarily signify that your relationship is getting warmer.

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How to run a business meeting

It is important for Estonians to establish a personal rapport with individuals before discussing business. Since businesses in Estonia tend to be fairly hierarchical, the person chairing the meeting is probably the most senior representative of the Estonian company. This individual will lead the meeting, setting the pace and deciding who can speak. They will start the meeting with a welcoming speech and introduce those present in rank order. Generally, it can be observed that the more junior staff only speak when they are invited to, or to address questions from the more senior staff. Consequently, it is important that you follow this lead and do not breach this aspect of etiquette.

In most cases, an agenda is followed sequentially.

It is common practice in Estonia to offer a small gift at the end of a meeting therefore it is recommended that you also bring a gift with you to give in return (e.g. something displaying your company logo would be appropriate).

Following the meeting, it is possible that you will be invited out for the evening. It is important that you do not turn down this invitation, as it will provide you with an opportunity to further improve your rapport with the individuals from the host company.

During meetings in the office, coffee should be offered, but no other snacks are normally made available. Most business meetings are done over lunch or dinner.

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Follow up meeting with a client

The minutes of the meeting are usually sent out a few days afterwards, summarizing the main points

of the discussion, any  decisions that were taken (assuming senior management was present) and next steps set out. The minutes are normally sent by those hosting the meeting.

Make sure that agreements and decisions are put in writing in both languages, in order to avoid misunderstandings.

If you want to make sure that things are done properly and to schedule, you will have to arrange fixed deadlines, dates and guidelines on how to accomplish the tasks. Make sure someone is made responsible for each task that needs to be completed.

Successful or not, after a meeting it is always a good idea to write to your host and thank them for their time and effort.

Business meals

The older generation still take business lunches and dinners, as a sort of a bonding process, rather than actually talking about business. Younger business managers, on the other hand, are more inclined to discuss business during lunch and entertain during dinner. Obviously, it depends on the individual, as there are no set rules about this.

Breakfast meetings are not common, and generally happen only at  the request of the visitor, probably at his/her hotel restaurant. Business lunches are more formal, so formal dressing is recommended, especially at a first meeting (a suit and tie for men and suit or smart dress for women). Business dinners are more for entertaining, spending time together and getting to know each other, rather than for discussing business. On such occasions, casual dress is  appropriate.

Business meetings tips

Be an expert in the subject on which you wish to negotiate, and come to the meeting well prepared.

Do not be arrogant or talk down to your partners. Estonians, like most people in the former communist countries, are sensitive to being underrated. They are proud people and expect to be treated as equal partners. They do not appreciate the ‘we will show you how to do things’ approach.

Do not show either your emotions or modesty, it will be seen  as a weakness and do not forget eye contact, when talking to Estonians. Never offer to shake hands in the doorway, Estonians believe that it brings bad luck.

Do not forget that the way you dress, is important in Estonia. If you want to create a partnership with the hosts, be prepared to take care over what you wear.

Estonians are well educated and very hard working people. Give them time and space, ask for their opinion about any problem and you will be surprised at the number of ideas they come up with.

Trust is very important to them. Once they feel they can trust you, they can network with more Estonian companies on your behalf and facilitate introductions.

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