Let us begin with a Russian quotation, which sums up what makes for successful business in Russia in a nutshell: “Our dealings with each other will be guided entirely by the quality of our personal relationships.”
Interpersonal trust is the master key to the Russian market. Only when your Russian business partner is confident that you are not interested in a brief “affair” but are in it for the long haul, a lasting business relationship, is he prepared to trust you. He will then do everything in his power, or a great deal at any rate, to help his newfound friend.
Getting to know each other
Therefore, Russians always take plenty of time to get to know a new business associate. It is best not to barge straight in and start talking business or discussing the agenda for the meeting as soon as you arrive at the airport. Also, do not book the evening flight home on the same day. Business appointments in Russia invariably last several days.
Wave goodbye to any expectations of achieving as much as possible in the least amount of time. Instead, you should embrace the intensive process of getting acquainted. It is not for nothing that Russians say, “Two people do business, not two companies.”
Accordingly, you will be subject to close scrutiny while being welcomed and during the round of introductions. Russian business associates greet each other with a handshake, whereby the younger is introduced, or introduces himself, to the elder. A younger man should not hold out his hand straight away to a considerably older man but wait until he is addressed. Likewise, as a man, do not simply offer your hand to a woman but wait to see whether she intends to shake hands or merely acknowledges you with a friendly nod.
Introduce yourself with your full name and bear in mind that your partners will give their first name, patronymic (or father’s given name) and surname, along with the male or female ending.
On first acquaintance, the correct form of address in Russia is the given name and patronymic, whereby Russians with international business experience sometimes use their first name and surname. Although they soon move to first-name terms, this should not be mistaken for a greater level of intimacy.
You should also state your exact position in the company when introducing yourself. Hierarchies are of enormous significance in Russia. Therefore, you are advised to magnify your respective professional title slightly to ensure that the right doors are subsequently open to you.
A job title that reflects your position and decision-making authority in the company should also be clearly shown on your business card. Academic titles are not included, however.
If you want your business cards to appeal to Russian taste overall, it is best to steer clear of simplicity and instead incorporate a few optical elements, such as a photo, a flag or similar. Business cards in two languages, with one side in Russian, will be highly appreciated.
Besides a compelling business card, a smart, formal appearance is key. Dress to impress. Both men and women should place emphasis on high-quality business wear, a decent haircut, a pleasant scent and manicured hands. Your Russian hosts will pay close attention to first-class accessories, such as watches or handbags. As signs of success and to convey membership of a certain class of society, status symbols are worn with pride in Russia.
As a rule, after the initial welcome, a lengthy session of small talk serves to become better acquainted. Avoid talking just about the weather and your journey. A personal conversation that goes beyond the usual small talk topics is the order of the day. Showing genuine interest in your interlocutor is just as important as praising or paying compliments. Admire the natural beauty of the country or city, congratulate your hosts on their fantastic office or friendly staff. You can be sure of a warm reception in Russia if you are sincere and enthusiastic.
Ask open-ended questions and take advantage of any opportunities that arise, such as photographs on a desk, to ask about your Russian business partner’s family. But also divulge a lot about yourself. There is no need to go into intimate detail. But it will be seen as a positive sign in Russia if you open up to your hosts.
The smiling gap
Perhaps Russia’s “smile gap” makes everything a little difficult at the beginning. Many Russians appear to be extremely reserved on first acquaintance. A latent fear that stems from Stalinism is assumed to be behind this reticence: only time will tell whether others be friend or foe.
If you are almost in despair while getting to know one another, hoping for the Russian soul to finally surface and display that warm, effusive hospitality of which you have heard so much, then you would be advised to remember the following sentiment, which best describes their initial aloofness: “As long as you are a stranger, I see no reason to be friendly to you.” Constantly smiling to break the ice is frowned upon in Russia. You will quickly rouse suspicion that you have something to hide. By contrast, solemnity stands for reliability.
Consequently, you will be scrutinised and observed. Make concessions. Then the Russians can decide whether you have real substance. Accept this as a given and do not let it put you off your stride. Open up instead, be yourself, then your Russian business partner’s stony face will gradually fall away to reveal his welcoming nature. Then you will have finally closed the “smiling gap”.
The ensuing discussion
Now you can shift the focus onto the business of the meeting and the next steps. There is no need to wait for your Russian host to take the lead. Even now, you should take care not to be hasty and enquire about day-to-day cooperation, let alone pull a draft contract out of your pocket. “Let us wait and see how things develop” will probably crop up at regular intervals.
During the ensuing discussion, you should appear receptive and motivated, avoiding any action that could potentially undermine the harmony. An arrogant demeanour is totally unacceptable. Understandably enough, appearing to be superior or giving Russian partners the impression that you have to explain how things work will not go down well at all.
The boundaries between private and business activities are frequently blurred in Russia. Accordingly, Russians like organising a leisure programme in addition to the official business meetings, for example, an outing to a sauna, a restaurant, a bowling alley or a karaoke bar. Perhaps you will also be invited to their homes. You are advised to accept this invitation without fail. It is a great honour.
These activities are conducive to building a rapport on a personal level. Once you have accompanied your Russian business partner to a sauna and talked about every topic under the sun, he will drop his strategic, calculating approach where you are concerned and put his cards on the table. But beware: one sauna session alone does not guarantee a successful transaction.
Wait for decisions
Your new Russian business associates may need some time before informing you of their decision regarding your business venture. Although following up is permitted, it is best to schedule more time for further meetings and discussions in order to wrap up your deal.