Meetings are a normal feature of the Belgian business scene, either face-to-face or, with the predominance of international activities and the emergence of virtual teams, over the telecom/Internet network. They vary in their nature and content, but are a very common part of organisational life.
Increasingly, meetings are team-oriented, with or without the participation of senior management. Project team meetings may be planned at short notice and often go on longer than the participants really want. It may be necessary to plan ahead when arranging meetings with senior executives, as agendas tend to be booked up some time in advance.
If you are planning a sales visit to propose a product or service that you represent, be sure to make arrangements well in advance. You may be able to arrange a meeting over lunch, particularly if you are arriving and leaving the same day. The traditional formula of coming to meet the chief buyer but spending a lengthy lunch with the senior manager, as still practised in France, is dying out.
If formal presentations are planned, then the venue of meetings, who needs to attend, and any required equipment, (e.g. PowerPoint or overhead projector), need to be arrangedin advance. Plan to keep to time, even if the meeting overruns, and try to leave with a firm conclusion. You may wish to submit draft minutes or a memorandum of understanding later.
Internet and video conferencing and conference calls are a regular event these days. Belgian executives generally prefer face-to-face contact, but are rapidly adapting to the new technologies.
Importance of business meeting
It is good practice in Belgium to make an appointment at least a few days in advance: once the timing has been agreed there is no need to check or reconfirm. If you later have a conflict of priorities, explain the situation to your Belgian partner and he or she will certainly understand and make an alternative arrangement.
The most suitable time for a business meeting is probably about 10 a.m. If the proceedings are positive, it may lead to lunch, when the agenda can range from a continuation of the business discussion to purely social affairs. This will help build the sense of mutual trust that is so important to Belgians.
If you have a specific product or proposition to offer, by all means supply some background details (price excepted) in advance. Information about the other company may well be available on the Internet.
Business meeting planning
Being pragmatic and relatively non-hierarchical people compared with some other European cultures, many Belgian managers can be approached directly for an appointment: this certainly applies in the SME sector, where the younger generation of managers has abandoned the autocratic style of its predecessors. Only occasionally will you find yourself dealing with a secretary or personal assistant.
If confirmation is necessary, this can be done by e-mail. Normally, agendas for the meeting will not be exchanged in advance. In fact, there may well be no formal agenda at all as many Belgians prefer to ‘feel their way’ and leave themselves with the flexibility to work around to a sensible compromise.
Punctuality is generally appreciated in Belgium and meetings will not normally be allowed to run on too long. In the case of social events, plan to arrive 5-10 minutes after the time indicated on the invitation.
Accessibility to meeting venues should not normally be a problem. The transport infrastructure in the main cities is generally excellent and taxi services are regulated.
With a long history in import and export, Belgians tend to be skilled but sympathetic negotiators. They have a flexible approach to forging win-win deals, hence the reputation of the traditional Belgian compromise. It may not be the ideal solution, but everyone comes out of it with their reputation and pride intact.
The Belgian negotiating manner, both Flemish and Walloon, is the opposite of the Dutch. It is not their style to stick on matters of principle, although they have clear principles of their own. Their approach is more exploratory, relationship-oriented and flexible. They have good listening skills, but this does not automatically mean they agree with you.
Where the Dutch will insist, in project work, on respecting the original specification to the finest detail, the Belgians will compromise intelligently in order to eliminate a problem.
Negotiation styles do not vary a lot between the different communities. The Flemish may be a bit more direct and incisive than the Walloons, who tend to be more relationship-oriented, while the older class of French-speaking Brussels business person (not to be confused with the Walloons) may be rather more formal. Men and women will normally be treated as equals, as will representatives from ethnic minorities.
The general Belgian attitude to negotiation is exploratory and initially non-committal, using the problem-solving approach and attempting to build bridges between divergent interests. Your counterparts will be receptive to your ideas provided they make basic sense.
The desire to find an arrangement that is satisfactory to both sides can encourage the Belgians to develop creative solutions that are unconventional but which serve their purpose. Make sure you allow time for this to happen. A serious mistake made by some would-be negotiators, Anglo-Saxon in particular, is to start the meeting by saying something like “we have to wrap this up by five as I have a plane to catch…”.
It may make sense to send one of your senior managers to negotiate, although Belgium is rapidly evolving from what is called an ‘ascription-based’ culture to an ‘achievement-based’ one. The closer you get to the leading-edge technologies, the younger the managers are likely to be.
Negotiations will normally be conducted in English. At most you may find it necessary to have a French-language interpreter present.
For further information, please see below:
- Executive Planet:
Start by shaking hands, saying something like ‘good day – a pleasure to meet you’, and presenting your business card to all involved: this may take a few minutes to conclude but is time well invested.
You should refrain from too vigorous a handshake or physical contact such as backslapping. Smiling suggests positive intentions but, again, should not be overdone.
Sometimes, in a meeting with many attendees, the chairperson will go round the room, with each person introducing themselves, with their name and job title, or if external to the organisation, the company they represent.
How to run a business meeting
When running a meeting, the most important factor to be aware of is the planning and preparation necessary to ensure the meeting achieves its objectives.
Ensure all the required attendees are aware of the meeting, and any necessary work they may need to do in advance. It is important to know who will be attending and what their specific functions are.
Ensure the location is thought through, that the room has all the required facilities, and holds enough space for the numbers likely to attend. If you are responsible for the meeting, it is advisable to arrive early to check the room layout and ensure that enough chairs are available. Also make sure there is a reasonable supply of good coffee as well as soft drinks.
You will most probably be able to fall back on English as the lingua franca for the occasion. If simultaneous translation is felt to be essential, then make sure the choice of interpreter(s) is acceptable to both sides.
It is generally accepted as courteous to allow other people to speak, and not to interrupt them when they are speaking. It is also useful to obtain feedback after the meeting and establish what the attendees thought of the content and what was discussed.
Follow up letter after meeting with client
It is advisable to send a written record of the decisions made at the meeting or a ‘memorandum of understanding’. Deadlines should be clearly stated and, if delivery of a product or service is involved, details of specifications and price confirmed. It is essential to give a firm and realistic delivery date. Ask for written confirmation of acceptance, but do not necessarily expect it unless a formal contract is involved.
Your Belgian counterparts will be impressed by prompt follow-up of actions agreed at the meeting.
Most Belgians, including the Flemish, think that socialising is an important element in the process of developing a successful business relationship. Added to this, most Belgians enjoy good food and, almost anywhere in the country, have a range of good restaurants to choose from.
Business meals offer a unique opportunity for partners to spend quality time together whilst discussing business matters thoroughly, undisturbed and in an agreeable environment. Unlike their French neighbours, Belgians will discuss such matters throughout the course of the lunch or dinner and not just ‘between the pear and the cheese’ at the end of the meal.
Most importantly, the business meal provides a suitable occasion to develop social relations that represent the core of the success of any business encounter in a foreign country. Although your Belgian counterpart is not seeking to create deep social bonds, these occasions provide the opportunity to develop trust and find out more about the other side.
Attitudes to business meals
The probability that you will be invited for a meal in a private home is low: the majority of business meals, including dinners, are held in restaurants, pubs or cafes.
Generally, the most suitable time for a serious and fruitful business meal is lunch. Lunch in Belgium is usually taken between 12.30 and 2.30 p.m.
Dinners are often a more sociable occasion (usually between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.), with the accompaniment of partners on the Belgian side. Any discussion of business on such occasions should be done discreetly.
Dining etiquette in Belgium is very much the same as in most other European countries. Common sense and general dining rules should be followed in order to cause neither embarrassment nor annoyance. The golden rules are: making an effort to eat and drink at the same pace as the rest of the group, not speaking with one’s mouth full, not stretching across the table, and not waving one’s cutlery about. Again, it is good practice to follow the host’s lead.
The general rules of restaurant etiquette are as follows:
- Turn off your mobile phone
- Keep your hands on the table
- If you can, avoid leaving anything on your plate
- When you have finished your starter/main course, place your knife and fork at twenty to four with the points of the fork facing upwards (placing the fork the other way indicates you are still hungry and want a second helping)
- It is not normal to tip in Belgium. Restaurant bills already include a service charge.
Belgian cuisine is among the finest in Europe: it is difficult to find even a high street café that fails to offer a tempting lunch known as dagsschotel/plat du jour at a very reasonable price. Local specialities, in addition to the famous but misnamed ‘French fries’, include waterzooi (a delicate chicken or occasionally fish stew), rabbit in beer, salade liègeoise, the tasty local grey shrimps and, in season, mussels from Dutch Zeeland. The Belgians are also great coffee drinkers: good quality espresso can be found almost everywhere.
For further information, please see below:
- Frommer’s: http://www.frommers.com/destinations/belgium/0213020880.html [en]
- World Travel Guide: http://www.worldtravelguide.net/belgium/food-and-drink [en]
- Belgium Food: http://www.worldwidewebawards.net/Food/Belgium.html [en]
Business meeting tips
It may be appropriate to start a business meeting with an informal conversation, though this should not take too long.
Ensure you bring enough business cards and information material about your company. The ideal time to hand out background material is at the beginning of the meeting.
Negotiations and decisions are usually open and flexible. Your Belgian counterparts will favour a win/win approach.