India is fast becoming one of the world’s largest economies, with the third-largest GDP in terms of purchasing-power-parity. But while international trading is booming, India has retained its own unique and complex business culture. A diverse country, made up of hugely varying regions, it can be hard to take one generic approach when looking at how to do business in India. However, as similar business etiquette is applied in most of India’s major cities, some broad conclusions can be drawn.
While India’s official language is Hindi, business is usually done in English and other key factors to consider include regionalism, religion and caste.
An understanding of the role hierarchy plays in Indian business culture is essential. Here a strict framework with its roots in Hinduism and the caste system often defines people’s roles, status and social order.
As Indians only do business with those they know and trust, relationship-building on a professional level is of the utmost importance, with traits including strong business acumen and trustworthiness valued highly.
While greeting with a handshake is in keeping with traditional meeting etiquette in India, Indians will greet each other using namaste. It’s seen as respectful and courteous of visitors to also opt for greeting with namaste, which involves gracefully bringing your palms together in front of your chest, with a slight bow of the head. If you do decide to stick with a handshake, be aware that in India a limp handshake is seen as a sign of respect, rather than weakness.
When addressing people always use the appropriate formal title (Professor, Doctor, Mr. or Mrs.) and you should arrive with business cards with one side translated into Hindi, ready to be exchanged on first meeting. Cards should be given and received with the right hand and put away respectfully in a case, rather than loosely into a pocket.
How to close a deal
Meetings should be arranged in advance in writing and confirmed on the phone, with an awareness of avoiding National holidays such as Independence Day, Diwali and the two Eids.
While punctuality is expected on your part, you must be prepared to be flexible, as last minute cancellations can be common, with family matters often taking precedence over business. Allow ample time to get between meetings, as India’s transport infrastructure is not as developed as that of other countries; for example it has only 1,300 km of fast roads compared to 77,000 km in the US.
On arrival you should greet the most senior figure first and be prepared for meetings to begin with some light conversation. While this is a key part of getting to know your associates, it’s important you avoid talking about personal matters and instead look to areas such as sport or business news.
Once business dealings begin, the primary focus at first should be building rapport and trust. While business decisions in India are made at the highest level, you may find that senior figures are not present at initial meetings as these are considered early stage negotiations.
As you may be judged on your good character and manner, as well as your business presentations and proposal, it’s important to remain patient and positive at all times. Indian society avoids confrontation and has an aversion to saying “no”, so it’s important to understand that anything other than a straight “yes” (such as “we’ll see” or “possibly”) may well be a negative response.
Once agreed and accepted, terms are usually honoured and deals may be celebrated with a business dinner.
As negotiations and arriving at decisions can be slow in comparison to business dealings in other countries, closing a deal in India can rely on stubbornness to succeed and patience with the system.