Crossing borders to set up a business in France may be exciting but international expansion can be precarious if you fail to detect the cultural cues that make or break a deal
As the second-largest economy in the European Union and the seventh in the world, France is a significant player on the global economic stage. It is Europe’s top destination for foreign direct investments, a leading financial services centre and a major start-up hub.
Yet, the country’s unique culture and traditions play a significant role when doing business in France. Here are 10 tips on how to avoid common pitfalls when setting up or expanding your business in France.
1. Pay attention to hierarchy
In the workplace, senior managers are assigned their own office and given precedence over subordinates when entering meeting rooms. Being aware of how the chain of command works can make a difference since hierarchy dominates corporate operations. For example, if you don’t know who is in charge, you may waste time and energy negotiating with the wrong person.
2. First impressions matter in France
First impressions can make the difference between success and failure when doing business in France. That’s why it pays to give attention to your attire, which should be formal and professional. With the exception of start-ups, the concept of “business casual” hasn’t yet taken a foothold in the French workplace.
3. Cultivate relationships in France
While acknowledging hierarchy is the first step towards achieving business success in France, cultivating positive relationships is the obvious second. As the French value good manners and politeness, it is crucial to follow the correct business etiquette with associates, partners and clients. Address men with “monsieur” and women with “madame”. Avoid using first names unless invited to do so and skip the small talk about family and personal matters on first meetings. The French prefer to keep business and personal sides separate.
4. Master your network in France
Networking is an essential part of French business culture. Business success depends on network recommendations rather than accolades and titles. The right introduction can open doors that would otherwise remain locked. That’s why it is important to build a business network by relying on a local partner with the right connections.
5. Prepare for meetings in advance
Schedule business meetings about two weeks in advance and arrive well prepared. In France, all meeting participants are expected to understand the agenda and contribute to the discussion. However, don’t bank on reaching a final decision or resolution after just one meeting. Anticipate further talking points and several rounds of discussions before the deal is sealed.
6. Avoid high-pressure tactics
The French don’t appreciate aggressive selling techniques and dislike being pressured into making quick decisions. Be patient, highlight the advantages of your proposal and be prepared for probing questions until the person at the top makes the final call. You should also follow up meetings with a written summary of the discussion and what has been agreed.
7. Negotiating in France
Business meals are common practice in France. Lunch and dinner meetings are often scheduled as an ice breaker to explore business relationships before progressing to serious talks. Expect a formal meal at a nice restaurant, rather than a quick bite at the corner café, and be prepared to pay for everyone if you are the one extending the invitation.
8. Lunchtime is sacred
Avoid lunchtime if you need to call or schedule an appointment, unless you are inviting your French contact to a lunch meeting. Employees in France get a proper lunch break and are not required to spend it at their desk. As a result, don’t expect an immediate response to emails during the midday break.
This also applies to evenings and weekends. Since 2017, managers and employees of companies with more than 50 staff are not required to answer emails outside working hours.
9. And so are French holidays
Business in France slows down considerably in July and August, when employees take most of their five-week annual leave. Staff numbers also reduce considerably in May, which has several public holidays. If a public holiday falls near a weekend, French workers often opt to take one or two days off to “bridge” the public holiday with the weekend. Plan critical meetings and business decisions outside these months and away from public holidays.
10. Learn the language
Although English is widely spoken in business circles, learning French greetings and a few useful words will help you establish a closer relationship with your contacts, besides earning their trust. You may also consider investing in a set of bilingual business cards. However, you should plan for professional translation services when doing business in France as French is the only accepted language for contracts and official documents.
Underestimating cultural differences can lead to costly mistakes when setting up or expanding a business in France. The support of a local partner is therefore essential to navigate the maze of culture, language and administrative complexities of this exciting country.
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