Business culture in India
“The secret of success in India is to adapt, improvise and get to fully understand the culture of doing business in the Indian commercial arena, which is vastly different from that of the Western world.”
Khalid Sheikh, Chairman, Clifton Packaging Group Ltd
Relationships are of utmost importance in Indian society. Indians will base their decisions on trust and intuition as much as on statistics and data, so be mindful of the importance of a good working relationship. Take the time to engage in small talk and get to know your prospective partner. Rushing straight into the business issue could be perceived as rudeness.
Business meetings and negotiations
Give as much warning as possible of your intended dates of travel and try to schedule your meetings well in advance. Do bear in mind that the arrangements may change several times and may not be confirmed until the day of the meeting itself.
Time is flexible. Although punctuality is expected, meetings may start a few minutes late and be subject to frequent interruptions, such as phone calls or staff members walking in to have documents signed. Do not be fazed by individuals taking phone calls during meetings. Taking calls immediately is seen as a priority, since it can be seen as rude not to, and those making phone calls regard it as impolite if their call is not answered immediately since the recipient will know who is calling. This can be frustrating but it is accepted practice. In any case, it is important to keep an eye on texts and emails in case the next meeting is rearranged.
Negotiations can be slow by Western standards. Be patient and demonstrate good character; forcefulness will likely drive your contact away.
Meeting and greeting
Small talk at the beginning of a business meeting is common and could include questions about your family. Establishing trust is essential in Indian business culture.
When entering a meeting, always greet the most senior person first. Etiquette requires a handshake, although some Indians may use the namaste, a common greeting involving pressing your palms together with fingers pointing upwards, and accompanied by a slight bow. A flexible approach is important and it is often best to be guided by the person with whom you are meeting. When exchanging business cards, make sure to receive the card with your right hand and put it away respectfully.
Dress code mostly consists of smart, comfortable clothing. A lightweight suit is appropriate and ties are not compulsory, except in traditional sectors such as banking or law. Women are advised to wear a trouser suit rather than a skirt. The weather in India is not always hot. Delhi and other parts of north India can be extremely cold in winter. Hotels and offices can also have very cold air conditioning, so it is well worth packing a sweater or pashmina.
“One of the biggest problems in India is communication. We think they speak English and they think they speak English, but actually it is quite different English. In the UK we have high expectations that we will be able to communicate effectively because we share a common language but you have to be more self-aware and address issues in a culturally sensitive way.”
Michael Trup, CEO, Interactive Ideas
English is widely spoken in business and is one of India’s official languages. Many Indians and business managers speak it fluently, though of course meaning can vary across cultures and countries.
Indians may have a particular difficulty saying “no”, as it can convey an offensive message. Instead, they will prefer making statements such as “we’ll see”, “yes, but it may be difficult”, or “I will try” when they likely mean “no”. Listen carefully and be aware of the meaning behind these answers. Do not attempt to compel your contact to be more direct, as this can be very difficult to do.
A way to seek a more positive answer is to rephrase the question, for instance if you are trying to secure a meeting and there is some evasion, one approach is to ask what day and time would be convenient to meet. Similarly, if there is resistance in providing a purchase order, the question could be asked when it is likely that a purchase order will be raised. This type of questioning may provide a more meaningful response.
Indian businesses are often very hierarchically structured. In negotiations, decisions are generally made at the highest of levels. Therefore, unless the company director, owner or a very senior manager is present at a meeting, a decision is not likely to occur at that stage. Roles are well defined in Indian society and tasks such as manual labour will only be carried out by a specific person. An Indian manager is typically not expected to carry out tasks that could otherwise be undertaken by someone at a lower level in the organisation.