South African business culture is relationship-oriented. Therefore, a first business meeting is aimed, above all, to get to know each other. Engage in small talk and be kind, open and honest. Building trust is essential to start off business together. In South Africa, the personal relationship between business partners often counts more than price discounts or brand image.
As personal appearance will be critical to your business success, you should make sure to wear appropriate clothing. Before a first business meeting, you should inquire about who is taking part. When the top management of a company gathers around the conference table, suit and tie are an absolute must for men. If the meeting is less high-level and rather informal, you can leave the suit and tie in the wardrobe. Having said that, do not dress too casually. A serious appearance underscores your serious business intentions. Designer labels are not necessary and play a minor role in South Africa.
A conservative business outfit is also recommended for women. Low cut tops are not advisable. The skirt should be at a minimum knee-length and blouse sleeves should reach at least to the elbow. Open shoes tend to look out of place at a business meeting.
In South Africa, there are as many forms of welcome as there are ethnic groups. Male black Africans, for example, greet each other with an ‘African handshake’, which involves a succession of different handgrips. In business, however, and especially when guests are received from abroad, a firm handshake is the norm. However, some South African women will only greet you with a nod, that you should reciprocate kindly. It is best to leave it to the women whether they want to shake hands with you or not.
If you already know each other, a welcome is often much longer and more cordial than on the first meeting. Hugs, friendly pats on the back and a long handshake are then to be interpreted as a sign of trust and appreciation.
At the beginning of a first meeting, all participants will introduce themselves with full names and titles. Later, things get less formal and everybody uses the first name to address each other.
‘Show me your business card and I know who you are’: this is true in South Africa, but not as much as in other countries. Indeed, business cards are not necessarily handed out at the beginning of a business meeting, but often at some point in between or at the end. Ff you have taken the trouble to have your business card translated into the mother tongue of your business partners, this is seen as a sign of great appreciation. Be aware though, that a translation of foreign language business cards into English is expected as standard.
As mentioned at the beginning, a first business meeting primarily serves to build relationships. In South Africa, people do business with people they are familiar with, and not with strangers. Therefore, you should also let your personality show. Tell them about yourself, e.g. how you came to the company you work for and what is special for you about it. It is also highly appreciated if you give some snippets of information about your family. And don’t forget to mention your good relations with the country and its population. In short: Express your connection to both your company and your new South African business partners. This will strengthen the connection and build trust.
Just as relevant is who you already know personally in the country and in business. Indeed, networking is a top priority on the Cape. In order to build up a large network of people you can rely on, you have little choice but to invest a lot of time and preparation before a concrete deal can be done.
Of course, it is very important to meet the right people. Compared to the international level, South Africa’s hierarchies are quite flat, and the principle of the ‘open door policy’ prevails. Hierarchies are more pronounced in companies run by black South Africans as well as in government-owned companies. In this case, you will have to climb a few steps before getting to the actual decision-maker. This is often also the founder, owner or descendant of the founder. To get there, you should show a lot of patience and respect during the numerous preliminary meetings. It is important that you accept the cultural system as it is, building relationships with the interlocutors at every level of the hierarchy and showing yourself as a person in addition to setting out your interest.
In principle, in South Africa, people are always friendly. Avoid conflict subjects and don’t criticize people directly. Express respect and show that you value them.
As a sign of recognition, direct and frequent praise is required. You should be careful to stress the person’s qualities and not their actions. Try to incorporate positives into the conversations, as often as possible, and address the challenges faced as strong performances.
In addition, it will be seen positively if you tell them which employees will be part of the future project team. Since the end of apartheid, people from formerly disadvantaged groups have been given preferential treatment in South Africa. You should consider this when assembling a project team. Any kind of discrimination, whether direct or indirect, must be avoided.
Do not expect a firm commitment after the first business meeting. As said at the beginning, you have to be patient in South Africa and build confidence little by little. South Africans are interested in long-term, loyal business relationships. Here, don’t expect to succeed through fast deals or uncertain business relationships from a distance. Therefore, prepare yourself for many follow-up appointments, business lunches together, and small-talk phone calls.