By Ann Marie Sabath
Few people recognize the impact that common courtesies have on others in business and social life. It’s not uncommon for many of us to dispense with traditions, if they get in the way of doing business. When interacting with individuals outside the United States, however, doing business in time-honored ways is not only appreciated by foreign clients, it’s expected.
It goes without saying that, “First impressions do make the difference!” Actions that most people take for granted, or never think about, affect business deals. And the further you travel from your home, the more cultures and customs may vary. While learning a second language may not be necessary to develop a long-term relationship, knowing the “do’s, don’ts and taboos” of the countries in which you’ll be doing business is essential to your success.
Keep in mind that customs vary around the world from wearing a jacket and tie or a guayabera to how to pass out business cards, shake hands and slurp (or not). We’ll limit our scope here, however, to potential customers and clients in Germany and Switzerland. Here are some pointers to raise your level of awareness to the protocol, customs and etiquette essential for building relationships in these countries.
Punctuality is a way of life. Schedule appointments in the morning after 9 a.m. You’ll insult your Swiss customers if you are late. When visiting Switzerland in the summer, know that July and August are vacation times for many Swiss. Take plenty of business cards. If you represent a company that has been in existence for several years, be sure it’s mentioned on your card. Your company’s stability will impress Swiss clients. When announcing yourself to the receptionist for an appointment, give him/her a business card.
Greetings & introductions
When greeting a Swiss client, remember that a handshake while standing goes hand-in-hand. Also, shake hands when leaving. When addressing the person, be sure to use the last name, rather than first, unless asked to do otherwise.
Patience is a virtue! When building a business relationship with Swiss clients, take your time. Don’t expect them to make decisions overnight. There are three regions within Switzerland: German, Italian and French. If you’re meeting with a customer representing the German region, don’t be surprised if he/she makes very little “small talk,” and gets right to the point. Customers from the French or Italian areas may be more inclined toward “small talk” before getting down to business. Appropriate topics to discuss are participatory sports, what you’ve enjoyed doing in Switzerland and your travel experiences. Subjects to avoid include age, job or personal life.
Telephone greetings will vary according to the region you’re calling. For example, if you’re dealing with a Swiss customer from the French region, he/she will probably answer the telephone by saying, “Allo.” Those in the Italian area will answer with “Pronto.” And those in the German areas will answer by using their names. Do not try to conduct business over the phone with someone you have not met personally.
“Power breakfasts” are not typical in Switzerland. Consider yourself lucky if you’re invited to the home of a Swiss customer. Their private lives are rarely open to strangers. Hands above board! Rather than keeping one hand in your lap, table manners dictate that your hands be showing at all times. Therefore, rest your wrists on the table when not eating. When dining with the Swiss, you’ll be expected to display manners from the “clean plate club.” When food is served “family style” (passed around the table), take only what you know you’ll eat. If you’re offered food that you’re not sure you will like, take a small portion rather than insult your host.
When visiting Swiss hotels and restaurants, you’ll notice that a service charge has been added to the bill. Therefore, you can expect to do very little tipping in Switzerland. If someone has gone “beyond the call of duty,” a minimal tip (i.e., 5 percent) is appropriate. When requesting the assistance of a bellman, tip him one franc per bag and an additional franc if your luggage is taken to your room. When dining in Swiss restaurants, it’s not customary to tip the captain, sommelier (a wine master) or busboy. While you’ll not be expected to tip a waiter more than the service charge, leaving an additional 3-to-5 percent tip is in order. When taking a taxi, you may find that the tip is included in the fare. If so, one to two francs may be given. When the tip hasn’t been included as part of the fare, add 10 percent to the total. When in doubt, ask!
If you’ve been invited to someone’s house for dinner, be sure to take a gift such as candy or flowers. Do not take red roses or carnations, which have romantic connotations. Flowers such as white asters and chrysanthemums are reserved for funerals. It’s appropriate to take an uneven number of flowers (but never 13), since an even number is considered bad luck. When participating in a toast, know that “To your health” is a common phrase. If possible, say it in the language of the Swiss region you are visiting. After a toast has been made, be sure to follow the ritual of clinking glasses with each person at the table.
Germany stresses formality and punctuality more than any other European country. If you want to start off on the right foot, begin initial contact in the form of a well-written letter. Keep in mind it would be to your benefit to have the letter written in German. The impersonal form of address may be used in the letter (i.e., “Herr” for men and “Frau” for women). Typically, you will receive a written response within two weeks. At that point, a telephone call is in order. Punctuality is perceived as respect for others. Be prompt, neither early nor late. Everyone from the receptionist to your contact’s secretary will be informed of your visit. Therefore, treat each person as courteously as you do the decision-maker. Germans are known to be meticulous, highly organized and concerned about small details—be sure you prepare your presentation with these characteristics in mind.
Greetings and introductions
Shake hands firmly (usually one pump) both at the beginning and end of meetings. The handshake is perceived so importantly that if someone leaves during the middle of a meeting, you should take a moment to extend your hand. American business etiquette encourages us to smile when meeting someone. Don’t expect this form of welcome with your German customers. Smiling may be a sign of good will to us; however, it’s a gesture of affection to Germans. When introducing two people in a business situation, say the name of the younger or lower-ranking person first. When talking with customers in southern Germany, be sure to address them by both their titles and names (i.e., a male engineer with a Ph.D. should be addressed as “Herr Doktor”). As in Switzerland, use last names unless asked to do otherwise.
Men should be sure to observe the following seating protocol: Sit to the left of a woman and also men of senior rank. Appropriate topics to discuss are German sports, families, the German countryside and professions. Those to avoid are politics, references to World War II and American sports.
Take a gift to your German host when invited to his home. Follow the gift-giving protocol of Switzerland. Also, observe the universal rule of promptly sending your host a “thank you” note.
Follow the European style of eating (see description for Switzerland). As in Switzerland, breakfast meals are out. When taking a client to lunch or dinner, be sure to take the time to get to know your customer on a personal level. Business should not be brought up until after the meal.
Rather than saying “hello” when answering the telephone, give your last name.
Tipping for Germany is similar to that in Switzerland. When dining in a restaurant, you’ll find that a service charge of 15 percent is added to your bill. If you would like to display your appreciation for outstanding service, an additional tip of 5 percent is in order. When a service charge isn’t added to the bill, a 10-to-15 percent tip is expected.
You’ll note that many of the customs between these two Northern European countries are similar. Such is not always the case in countries of such close proximity, particularly in this region of the world. Those on other continents can be even more divergent. The differences can be devastating if unheeded, so one should always take care to ask if something is appropriate if unsure. Expressing an interest in understanding the way of life of a particular culture often is appreciated and allows for establishing a better business relationship with your client.
About the author
Ann Marie Sabath is the founder of At Ease Inc., a 15-year-old Cincinnati-based company specializing in domestic and international etiquette training. Sabath also is the author of Business Etiquette: 101 Ways To Conduct Business With Charm And Savvy; Business Etiquette in Brief, and International Business Etiquette, a book series that includes Asia and the Pacific Rim, Europe and Latin America. Her latest work, Beyond Business Casual: What To Wear To Work If You Want To Get Ahead, was released in April. She can be reached by email: [email protected].
For more on this topic, see the “The International Business Etiquette Internet Sourcebook,” which offers a number of online resources on business customs and protocols abroad—from Asia to Latin America to Europe. It’s provided by the Agriculture and Agri-Food Ministry of Canada at:
A number of book titles can also be fund on the subject at http://www.careerpress.com or http://www.amazon.com.