preferably in a pair of Gucci loafers
In this remarkably beautiful country nothing is more important than creating and maintaining the bella figura to achieve a successful introduction into the business environment. Italy is famous for its strong cultural heritage and this also extends into its business customs and etiquette. Understanding and taking advantage of Italian business protocol will help you enter this very protected realm. The bella figura (making a good first impression) is extremely important in all aspects of Italian interaction. One must find the right connections, use them demurely and wisely and have great respect for the customs of Italian business. Your first introduction can take some time, planning, and effort but with proper attention to the nuances of Italian business culture it can pay off handsomely.
Connections, usually family or political ties, are required to find the best introduction one can have when trying to enter a business environment in Italy. Italians prefer to do business with people whom they know or have been recommended by associates rather than unknowns, regardless of qualifications or merit. Personal relationships in Italy are critical for successful business negotiations. For this reason, existing contacts and personal networking are the best method of enabling you to initiate a business relationship. This may entail joining social, sports and business clubs to have the opportunity to make yourself known. This social networking in extremely important: family, personal interests, etc. allow you to open the door for further discussion about yourself that can then lead to your business interests. However Italians are highly suspicious so one must be careful not to be aggressive in speaking of your business attributes or successes but rather allow your host to initiate the discussion. Patience is very important. Italians are very intuitive and can easily be turned off by an aggressive demonstrations of skills or achievements that they may judge as arrogance.
Italians have a great respect for authority, professional title and academic achievement. Hierarchy is the cornerstone of Italian business. Italian business etiquette requires that professional titles be used, whether in casual conversation or formal writing. Those with university degrees are usually given the title of Dottore or Dottoressa. Likewise, Italians generally prefer to do business with only the most important people in any organization as social standing and title are critical in this culture.
Once you have been introduced it is important to follow the rather formal Italian protocol of writing a letter in Italian introducing yourself and requesting a meeting. This letter should list your academic achievements, professional titles, awards etc. After this initial contact you can then follow up by a less formal email or phone call. Italy is a country immersed in bureaucracy that Italians consider to be very important. Seemingly endless and apparently useless bureaucracy must be respected as this gives a sense of importance to all status levels of a business and cannot be lightly dismissed. Deadlines and efficiency are usually secondary to considerations such as attention to bureaucratic detail. There is a clear hierarchy in every Italian business that can not be underestimated nor always understood. This hierarchy is based on many things and not always merit or skill, but rather family position or political connections. It is extremely important that you show the appropriate respect for the various status levels within a business and always err on the formal rather than information interaction. Generally, between executives and subordinates, first names are not used in Italian business culture and the formal Lei version of “you” is used to address people, rather than the informal tu form. Running your business smoothly may require assistance from a third-party logistics team which would increase the efficiency of your business.
The bella figura is not only expressed in your interrelationship with business associates but also in the way that you present yourself. What other people think is considered extremely important and Italians are very fashion and status conscious. What you wear will indicate your social status and level of education. Therefore you must dress to impress with good quality appropriate business attire and business accessories. This is after all the country of high design. Casual means a lack of respect in the Italian Business setting and will do nothing to promote your success.
Also keep in mind that regardless of your position that you will always be regarded as a guest in this country. Extremely good manners are essential in the Italian business world. What Italians may allow themselves to do may not always be considered acceptable behavior for a foreigner. Punctuality for example is something that is always expected of a guest… but rarely are Italians punctual. Italians will have the habit of interrupting and speaking at the same time as others and raising their voices to make a point but it will not be considered acceptable for you to do the same. These are some of the many things that you will need to learn to accept.
Italians are generally not overly receptive to new ideas and concepts, especially from an outsider. An aggressive sales pitch will usually have a negative response so take you time and slowly, humbly and respectfully present your proposal. Also keep in mind that Italians prefer not to take risks and therefore often choose to follow something that has been successful in the past even though it may not be particularly suited to their current situation. In addition Italians are often envious of the success and achievement of others and therefore it is sometime difficult to look at competitive situations objectively. Therefore it is important to comment and criticize only in a positive helpful manner and at the same time compliment their past accomplishments .
Generally Italians are emotional and a business meeting may appear, to an outsider, to be a heated argument but is in fact a normal method of negotiation. In addition, be prepared to accept last minute demands, changes, interruptions, raised voices and an initial apparent lack of agreement. This is all standard practice. The goal of the initial meeting is to develop a sense of respect and trust with your Italian business colleagues and not to come to a firm agreement. Italians prefer to take their time to contemplate and evaluate a business proposal and may take a number of days, weeks or months before responding. Most final decisions are made in private closed meetings to which you will most likely not be invited. It is important to be patient and avoid pressing an issue as this is against Italian business protocol.
In this country of spectacular landscape, classical architecture and high design, you must pay attention to all of the details. Final agreements and decisions are not only based on the quality of business material and information that you have presented but also in the manner in which you have presented yourself - your bella figura. In Italian culture, looking good is essential: appearance is frequently considered more important than merit so you need to present your proposal and yourself accordingly.