A culturally diverse nation, made up of four distinct entities (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Island), business culture in the UK can vary between sectors and is often influenced by a company’s heritage.
Overall the British approach to business can be seen as formal, with many companies led by older or ‘upper class’ business people, who rely heavily upon an established protocol and prefer to do business with those they have an established relationship with. While younger teams and those in the creative industries can be more relaxed in their approach, networking and relationship building are often the key to long-term successes regardless of the company and the level of formality.
People in Britain prefer to do business with those of the same rank, so when arranging meetings a considered approach should be taken, ensuring those of the same level are in attendance.
Business attire is usually conservative, with men wearing dark suits and a tie for formal meetings and women wearing dark suits or skirt suits, or a classic dress and jacket. Dress codes in the creative industries can be much more relaxed and meeting attire will often be “smart casual” (a shirt and trousers).
It’s important to remember that “British” is not interchangeable with “English”, so it’s best to do your research before attending a meeting, to ensure you do not cause offence.
It is customary to shake hands firmly when meeting someone for the first time and to maintain eye contact. Women should be greeted in the same way as their male counterparts.
While business cards are also exchanged, there is no formal ritual around this and you should not be surprised if your card is put away after a very brief glance.
The British usually use first names when addressing each other, even at initial meetings, but it if you’re uncertain, allow them to take the initiative before following suit. Academic titles are not used in British business culture, with the exception of medical doctors.
How to close a deal
Time is valued as an economic resource in the UK, which means being punctual is expected and you should call ahead if there’s a chance you may be running late.
While meetings are generally formal, for a defined purpose and lead by an agenda, they will usually begin with some small talk. If a senior ranking person is present, they may well lead proceedings and do most of the talking, but at meetings of those of a same level, expect a free flow of ideas and opinions.
When it comes to communication, the British are known for their politeness and reserve, with the indirect nature of their approach potentially leading to confusion. As they will generally try to avoid confrontation and it is considered rude to openly disagree, they may qualify statements with ‘perhaps’ or ‘it could be’. While conversation can be more direct between those of equal rank, in general it’s best to avoid being too blunt, as this can be perceived as arrogant or aggressive.
Strong emotions are rarely expressed in British business meetings and it is wise to keep your voice down when speaking and try to avoid making large, exuberant hand gestures. Along with indirect speech, understatement and humour may also be used in order to maintain a calm, low-key environment. British humour is dry, witty and self-deprecating and being able to laugh at oneself is valued highly. Used correctly, humour may feature at even the highest ranking of business meetings in the UK and is not a sign that proceedings are not being taken seriously.
Presentations should be professional and efficient and should not feel rushed or dictatorial. Make sure any claims are backed up by facts and figures, as these are more likely to have an influence on decision-making, rather than gut feeling.
When looking to close a deal in the UK, don’t expect decisions to be made straight away. You will be met with caution if you are seen to be going after a quick deal. Meetings are usually followed by a letter or email summarising what was decided and any next steps.