Nowadays, nearly all companies conduct business on a multinational, globalized scale. Latin America, specifically Colombia, is ripe with untapped opportunity and growing markets for expanding businesses. Now more than ever, foreign companies, entrepreneurs, and investors are moving to and/or starting businesses in Colombia. Expanding operations is no easy task though. Even with welcoming markets and a favorable economy, the business still must navigate the different culture, language, and customs.
Craig Dempsey, founder and CEO of The StartupVC, has successfully run startups out of Bogotá, Colombia. His involvement with Latin America and Colombia began when he first got involve3d in the mining sector. Realizing the potential and welcoming professional environment, Craig moved into the entrepreneurial sector. Now, with years of experience, expertise, and success, Craig shares his best tips to understanding and navigating business culture in Colombia.
An overview of business culture in Colombia
Business culture in Colombia can vary depending on the city in which operations and/or meetings are taking place. Generally, in popular, business-focused cities like Bogotá and Medellín, business matters are very formal. However, cities on the coastline of Colombia, or smaller inland cities like Cali, have a more relaxed tone of business. This becomes important in managing attire, tonnage, and even your expectations.
Regardless of the city though, establishing personal relationships is a top priority. Business culture in Colombia, and really much of Latin America, is operates within a high context culture. This means that communication, meaning, and success of business is contingent upon strong, trustworthy relationship between the two parties and the environment, or context, of the dialogue. This includes asking personal questions and a willingness to open up when answering. Don’t be alarmed if talking about personal matters and lives takes up a lot of time in the beginning of meetings. This is customary and should be taken as seriously as the business that is to be conducted.
Beyond creating personal connections, firm handshakes, strong eye contact, and a genuine smile is the best way to greet a Colombian business counterpart. The same goes for when you are leaving.
Navigating the specifics of business culture in Colombia
With a general overview of business culture in Colombia, it might not seem all too different from what you’re used to experiencing. However, Colombia’s culture, both business and country-wide, can be very nuanced and intricate. The trick for conducting successful business and developing fruitful relationships lies in the ability to navigate, understand, and practice the specifics of Colombia’s business culture. It’s important to keep in mind that individuals and companies in Colombia may stray or operate differently from the aforementioned and upcoming descriptions. While these tips and tricks hold true for the majority, it is still advised you be aware that not all businesses in Colombia will operate like this completely.
As with any business dealing, appearing groomed and put together is a must. Cities like Medellín and Bogotá appreciate formal business attire, manicured hands, and well-groomed hair. For women, expectations also include having makeup done tastefully. As for Colombian cities with more relaxed business tones, business casual is acceptable. Be sure to do your research first though on the level of formality of business in that city and how your Colombian counterpart conducts business. Appearance is important in Colombia, so be sure to uphold a clean and well-styled image.
Handshake or kiss on the cheek?
Many cultures around the world are famous for greeting with a kiss or two on the cheek. Latin America, Colombia specifically, falls into this category. As a foreigner coming to the country to do business, electing between greeting with a handshake or a kiss may be unchartered territory. For business greetings and interactions, it is common for Colombian men and women to exchange a kiss on the cheek. The same goes for meetings between Colombian women. However, this type of greeting in a business setting comes after the two parties are already familiar with each other. Otherwise, a handshake is customary. These same standards apply to foreigners doing business in Colombia. Starting with a handshake is the safest option. For later meetings, should your Colombian counterpart initiate a kiss on the cheek, then you should follow through with it. From here, you can adjust your expectations for greeting this person.
Understanding the hierarchy
Much of the business culture in Colombia is evident through a corporate hierarchy. Should you be aiming to conduct business with a Colombian company, be sure to set up meetings with the senior employees and/or heads of the organization. Any contacts you may have in a company can be helpful in securing a meeting with the head employees. However, at the end of the day, those are the individuals that you have to make a personal connection with since they make the decisions.
When you are first meeting these company leaders, it is customary to set up a lunch meeting. This will focus on all parties getting to know each other on a personal level. After the introductory meeting, both parties should have a gage on whether or not the partnership will be a good fit. If it is, a secondary or follow-up meeting should be scheduled. It is in the second meeting that the company heads will want to discuss business and partnership opportunities.
Titles and Names
Interestingly enough, Colombian businesspeople tend to address each other by their title when in the workplace. Titles like Doctor, Engineer (Ingeniero), Professor, and Lawyer (Abogado) are all prevalent in Colombia’s workplace. However, based on the close-knit community and tendency for personalized business relationships, it is also common to address individuals by their first name. First-name basis really only comes when the relationship is close and comfortable. Typically, the individual will tell you it’s okay to address them by their first name when they feel comfortable. Once your counterpart makes this request, you should follow it. This helps avoid any instances of offense or misunderstanding.
Make an effort to learn and/or speak Spanish
Spanish is the official language of Colombia. Naturally, most business in Colombia is in Spanish. Even though you are a foreigner, it is still appreciated, and sometimes expected, that you make an effort to learn and/or use any Spanish you have privy to you. Many C-suite executives in Colombia speak English, but do not assume this will always be the case. Use Spanish as much as you can. If you do not feel comfortable in your abilities, or only feel comfortable using it for small talk, arrange for a translator to be at your meetings. This way, there are no misunderstandings, nor lost opportunities.
While you are employing a translator, you should still be working on your Spanish abilities. This entails taking classes, reading, listening, and practicing Spanish in your free time. Not only will your Colombian counterparts appreciate your effort and dedication, but it will also speed up meetings and exchanges.
Learn more about Colombian business and Latin America’s business culture
Business culture in Colombia can be tricky to juggle, especially when the business culture you know differs heavily from it. However, with research, resources, and local support and insight, you and your company should adapt Colombian business culture practices seamlessly.