Business Etiquette, Languages & Culture
Business Etiquette Overview
Before conducting business in Colombia, you should be aware of the local customs that need to be taken into account. Colombia's business culture varies across the country. In the major cities (in particular Bogotá and Medellín) the business culture is more formal, often more so than in Europe. In smaller cities such as Cali or those on the North Coast, the culture is generally more informal. In all cases, establishing personal relationships is essential to conducting business.
First names should normally be used, but titles are important and terms like 'Doctor' should be used as a form of respect. This can be used for anyone with a degree, not necessarily a PhD.
When meeting and greeting, expect a firm handshake, often for a long time, combined with strong eye contact. Smiling is also important. Expect to be asked several times how you are and how things are going. If this is your first visit to Colombia, you are likely to be asked if you like it - Colombians are universally keen to know that visitors have a positive impression of their country and how it compared with what they imagined. They are aware that Colombia's reputation in the UK and elsewhere is often one of violence and drugs.
The first time you meet a woman, it is generally acceptable to shake hands. But if you have met the woman before, it is acceptable to kiss her on her right cheek - once you have met her several times and have built a relationship with her, this will be expected.
On departure you should repeat all the handshaking and kissing. Time should be included in your programme; do not assume that you will be able to make a quick exit.
Conservative European dress code is the norm for all meetings in Bogotá and Medellín. Remember that just because Bogotá is close to the equator does not mean that it will be warm - at 2,500m above sea level, the temperature will usually be around 18-21ºC. Smart casual dress may be acceptable, or even desirable, in smaller cities, especially those in more tropical climates.
Colombians usually take holidays during Christmas/New Year and Easter week. Try to arrange your visit at other times.
It is probably best to start arranging meeting schedules around two weeks before arrival, but it is normal for meeting schedules to remain unconfirmed until close to the visit. If a local agent or partner is arranging a programme, you should be open to the fact that the schedule is likely to change. It is advisable to reconfirm meetings the day prior to the scheduled slot.
Obtaining meetings with officials from the public sector can be difficult, especially at a senior level, and these meetings can be particularly vulnerable to late changes. UK Trade & Investment can provide assistance in this area.
When arranging a meeting, it is advisable to provide the Colombian company with the subject of the meeting in advance, although only limited detail will be required at that stage. You should not expect the company to have carried out extensive research on you, even if you have sent them material in advance. It is probable that they will not have read the material. Punctuality is frequently an issue in Colombia, but you should not interpret lateness as a sign of rudeness or laziness. If you will be late for a business meeting, you should phone the Colombian company to advise them. Colombians generally expect the British to always be punctual. Traffic in Colombia, especially in Bogotá, can be bad. Plan your trip with plenty of time to allow for delays.
Meetings can be lengthy affairs, allowing for small talk before getting down to business. It is normal to exchange business cards at the start of meetings (although in restaurants or at business lunches they should be exchanged after the meal). It is polite to turn off your mobile (or leave it mute) during meetings and business lunches or dinners, only taking urgent calls. If you are expecting an urgent call, it is wise to inform your contact in advance.
The Colombians welcome presentations, and a booklet that contains the presentation will be well received - it is always useful to have some form of marketing material (preferably in Spanish) to hand over.
Detailed business negotiations are likely to happen in the office rather than over a meal. In general, Colombians tend to be flexible and adaptable and use common sense. They will tend to want to get to know you before doing business. You should not expect a quick, direct approach to issues of pricing etc.
Although Colombians are concerned with quality, price is usually the key factor to determine the success of a business partnership.
As a general rule, it is advisable to appoint a lawyer who will be able to help you with all the legal requirements during the contract process. UK Trade & Investment can provide a list of lawyers with experience in international trade issues, on request.
Colombians are more likely to discuss business issues by telephone than by email. But the first preference is face-to-face communication. It would be a mistake to depend on the regular mail service to send material. Instead, it is better to use registered mail/couriers.
Colombian business is hierarchical. Decisions are made by the highest‑ranking person. You should not expect lower-level staff to have the authority to make decisions.
The language spoken in Colombia is Spanish. The differences between Latin American and European Spanish are slight and are similar to those between British and American English (such as differing accents and some different words). The Spanish spoken in each country of Latin America varies slightly. Making the effort to speak the language demonstrates seriousness about entering the Colombian market and any attempt to communicate in Spanish will be met with a positive response.
While an increasing number of Colombian companies, particularly those with an international outlook, have English speakers on their staff, do not assume that everyone speaks English. It is advisable to engage a local interpreter to accompany you to your first meeting with a potential partner until you have established whether your partner is confident doing business in English. Your interpreter will be one of your key assets and should be selected with care.
You should try to ensure that initial written approaches to Colombian companies are in Spanish and that company literature (including a basic company profile and product descriptions/profiles) is translated.
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A growing number of Colombian executives and government officials speak some English but you should not assume this. When setting up an appointment, you should always ask if your contact speaks English or if they would feel more comfortable with an interpreter.
There are two forms of interpreting. Consecutive interpreting means that you speak and then your interpreter interprets; this is the usual form for meetings, discussions and negotiations. Simultaneous interpreting is when you speak while the interpreter interprets simultaneously, but special equipment is required which is expensive to hire. Simultaneous interpreting is generally used only for large seminars and conferences.
Interpreting is a skill requiring professional training. Just because someone is fluent in English and Spanish, it does not mean that they will make a good interpreter.
If you are giving a speech or presentation, remember that the need to interpret everything will cut your available speaking time approximately in half (unless using simultaneous interpreting). It is essential to make sure that the interpreter can cope with any technical or specialist terms in the presentation. It is better to be slightly restricted and speak close to a script than to fail to be understood because your interpreter cannot follow you. If you are giving a speech, give the interpreter the text well in advance and forewarn them of any changes.
Colombians will want to reinforce their business relationship with you by visiting the UK, once a deal has been or is likely to be done, so be sure to invite them at the end of your first meeting if appropriate. Indeed, they will probably be delighted to visit the UK, especially if it is for the first time.
Colombians tend to leave arrangements (such as visa processes) late, so remind your contacts frequently to follow the correct procedure. They may need help with translation of personal material such as CVs and presentations.
Source - UKTI