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Meetings and behaviour in business context in India

by: Divya Susan Varkey, Associate partner of Hofstede Insights

Why should I read this document?

If you are looking to set up and conduct business meetings in India, this document gives guidelines on how to approach the meeting request, how to get a confirmation, when a confirmation is really a confirmation, how punctual you should be and how to conduct the meeting.

Important!

5 most important things to know about doing business in India (if you only read one thing this is what you should read)
 
  • India is a land of contrasts - rule of thumb: NEVER ASSUME AND ALWAYS RECONFIRM.
  • The two things I always ask my clients to pack in their suitcases while doing business in India: PATIENCE and FLEXIBILITY
  • In India, generally, relationships trump merit and social status trumps relationships.
  • In urban India, an accepted calendar request for a meeting gives a pretty good chance of the meeting happening, whereas in rural India, a calendar request is very likely to be ignored and follow ups expected.
  • Knowing your power position in a meeting is crucial to understanding how to conduct the meeting.
As with most matters in this highly diverse and contrasting culture, knowing your place in the cultural mosaic that is India is crucial to seeking, confirming and conducting meetings in India.
  • Who are you?
  • What do you offer?
  • What is in it for the individual/s you seek to meet?
  • Does it alleviate their status in terms of brand name, growth, international exposure or money?
Organising meetings in India can be like organising any other event in this hugely diverse country - either extremely easy or downright complicated. You may see that some meetings are agreed upon, confirmed, conducted and closed without much ado, whereas in other cases, even getting a confirmation will prove a daunting task. While this may be the case in practically any country you do business in, in India, knowing a few cultural peculiarities may help your case.
 
The cultural dimensions that come into play while organising and conducting a meeting are Power Distance (knowing the power relation between who you meet and yourself) and Uncertainty Avoidance (the Indian relationship with time is more cyclical than linear).
 
As mentioned earlier and in other articles, knowing your place within the Indian cultural mosaic is very important while seeking an appointment, confirming a meeting and conducting the meeting.

Who do you approach?

 
Depending on the size of the company you seek to approach, it may be difficult to reach decision makers within it. Small and medium sized companies are relatively easier to enter, though, being a high Power Distance culture, the top level decision makers may not be easily accessible. The access to decision makers will be directly proportional to how much potential they see in a deal with you. Younger Indian companies are more open to meetings to explore potential collaborations, whereas traditional companies remain conservative in their approach to meeting new people and embracing new ideas.
 
Networking events offer high potential in meeting prospective clients/partners. Setting up a meeting after initial introductions at a networking event can often prove easier.
What do you sell when requesting a meeting?
 
If you have not met at a networking event or other forum prior to requesting a meeting, it is very important to position yourself well - Who are you? How do you know the company you are approaching? (some words of appreciation for their work will take you a long way)
 
What do you offer?
 
It is advisable that you suggest a meeting during the initial call or email, suggesting possible dates with times. Following up on your emails once every two weeks would help in getting the necessary attention.
How do you approach?
 
In India, the communication style is very indirect when compared to most Northern European cultures and so, deciphering whether someone has agreed to a meeting or not can be challenging. It is common for people to say “Yes, let’s meet next week.”, all the while not intending to follow through with the suggestion. People who are serious (and very interested) in meeting will often send you a prompt calendar invitation (in urban India). For others, never take an initial meeting suggestion seriously unless they specify the time and date and reconfirm it with you. If the person/ people you want to meet do not take the initiative, it is advisable that you follow up after a day to reconfirm if the meeting is indeed happening and send a calendar request to confirm. If the meeting date and time is agreed upon a week or more ahead of the meeting date, it is advisable that you follow up once during the week and again on the morning of the meeting - just to check if there is any “unexpected delay” to the meeting time.
Where do you meet?
 
Where you meet depends on the power relation between you and the individual/s you want to meet. If you seek to meet a potential client, it is best to offer to go to their office, whereas, if it is a potential partner you seek to meet, you would meet in either of your offices or a neutral location like a cafe. Meetings can be conducted over coffee or lunch, whereas dinner/drinks meetings are reserved for when there is greater familiarity between the parties.
When do you meet?
 
Meetings are conducted within business hours - 9.00  - 18.00. Since India has the tendency to be polychronic (time is seen as cyclical rather than linear), delays of upto 15 minutes are generally overlooked. However, in urban India, there is more of an emphasis for timeliness and it would be best if you are punctual, while not expecting the person you are meeting to be exactly on time. If it is critical to you that the person you are meeting be on time (for example, if you have another meeting to rush to afterward), it is accepted that you mention this to the person you are going to meet in advance - stating that you will be rushing for another meeting afterward and so, you would highly appreciate it if any potential delay were communicated in advance.
 
The Meeting:

Meetings in India can be highly organised and to the point or haphazard, depending on the situation. In urban India, people are more accustomed to sending an agenda ahead of the meeting, and sticking to a pre-decided discussion list. However, if the meeting goes well and there is a good rapport between individuals, the topics can move to non-work related ones (this is a good sign) and the meeting might prolong its stipulated duration.

In rural India, however, it is best not to expect or send a pre-planned agenda, but to arrive with enough information and an open mind. If you are the power holder, you can drive the meeting, else, it would be best to allow your host to set the pace of the meeting. It is best not to expect that you close your objective within one meeting, as you may end up disappointed by the outcome. Whether the outcome of a meeting is clear or not, you would do well to follow up with an email, stating the key points of discussion and what each party has agreed to follow up with.

It is best to be formally dressed (formal shirts and trousers for men and women or Indian formals for women) at meetings. The conversation points are generally kept formal - the meeting may begin with small-talk on the weather, the place of meeting, or questions on how long you have been in the country, but this depends on the person you meet. Setting a congenial atmosphere is generally appreciated.

Tip: Talking about the good things you have heard about the individual/company you are meeting always helps set a very positive atmosphere. 

Short case study

 A young Dutch manager in Bangalore, was frustrated at the lack of attendance in the meetings he organised. He would ask his team for a meeting, he said, and everyone would agree on a date and time. He would send a meeting request which would not be accepted. At the time of the meeting, he was most often alone in the meeting room. The Dutchman realised only later that the key to holding a successful meeting in India was following up with the attendees. If nobody follows up about the meeting, it is easy to assume that it may be cancelled!