At your first business meeting in Italy you should definitely cut a bella figura—a fine figure. First and foremost, you need to sell yourself, not the project or product you have in mind.
Italians pay a lot of attention to outward appearances. Fashionable clothing, designer labels and – most importantly – expensive, polished shoes contribute significantly to a good first impression. Good manners and an overall positive self-portrayal are also important.
Italians greet their new business partners with a handshake. In subsequent meetings, however, the handshake is replaced by a friendly pat on the back for men and air kisses for women.
Introduce yourself with your full name and present your business card, which must include not only your contact details but also all academic titles in full length and your specific position in the company. Italians want to know exactly who they are dealing with and how to classify you in the hierarchy.
An Italian translation on the back of the business card can be an advantage, especially as every university degree in Italy is a PhD – “Dottori” or “Dottoresse”.
As a sign of mutual respect, you should study the business card you receive carefully and perhaps even make a brief appreciative comment before putting it away carefully.
Address and title
Titles replace surnames – people who have a higher position in the company and dress well as well are greeted with “Buongiorno Dottore” even if they do not have a university degree. Anyone who teaches is a ” Professore”, lawyers are addressed as “Avvocato” and any technically-oriented company representatives as “Ingegnere”. In addition, there are titles such as “Cavaliere” or “Commendatore”.
However, Italians will often switch to using first names after knowing you for a while.
Small talk is the next step in getting to know each other. It shouldn’t be that hard for you to compliment the country, the sights, the Italian cuisine and the friendliness of the Italians. Be generous with your compliments and avoid criticizing the overpowering bureaucracy, the political chaos or the unpunctual means of transport. You can enhance your bella figura if you can also impress by being up-to-date on art and culture, design and architecture.
In addition, personal topics are then also touched on before finally talking about the actual reason for the business meeting.
Stable and lasting business relationships can only come about in Italy once interpersonal relations are established. You will therefore also talk about hobbies, vacation spots, sports teams and, of course, the family. Family photos are often passed around.
All in all, the goal is to create a deeper, friendly connection through common ground.
Identifying decision makers
Traditional Italian companies, particularly in the south of the country, are organized in a strict hierarchy and it is crucial to talk to decision makers as soon as possible.
If your current interlocutor has no real power of decision, they will often cover this up for reasons of personal pride. In strongly hierarchical companies, it can be quite a challenge to find the right person who has the authority to make decisions.
In many family-run businesses, the owner may be the only decision maker, while middle management or other family members have little to say. However, the owner is often not around and will only appear once negotiations are underway.
In this case, it is even more important to forge a good personal relationship with the actual decision maker or, initially, with his closest confidants. At the same time, you must ensure that equal company representatives of equivalent hierarchical rank and age sit opposite each other in subsequent negotiations.
Invest a good amount of time in this delicate relationship building and also in the local networking that goes with it. It will pay off in the long run!