(3 Febbraio 2015)

People Feature: Italian business etiquette:
tips for making a "bella figura"
by Siobhan Riding

Italy's fund industry has experienced a transformation in recent years, turning the heavy outflows it suffered following the financial crisis into bumper inflows.

Many cross-border asset managers, such as T Rowe Price, Candriam and Jupiter, are turning their focus to the Italian market in an attempt to tap into the growing local investor demand for funds.

When pursuing commercial opportunities in Italy, international fund groups cannot afford to overlook the cultural norms that characterise business relations in the country – a place where the concept of bella figura, or a good impression, reigns.

Understanding how Italians, whether clients or local sales staff, operate in the workplace and what they expect from their dealings with business partners can play a key role in getting an asset manager's Italian sales strategy off to a good start.

Here are a few tips from experts and industry figures on how to avoid making a brutta figura when doing business in Italy.

(Italian business etiquette expert Alberto Presutti notes: "In Italy there is a kind of Mediterranean familiarity.

"We get very close to others [in terms of proximity] and we're very warm."

He says northern European professionals, being more reserved, "might not always appreciate this".

However, foreign fund staff that want to make a good impression in Italy should "try to tone down their own formal culture and adapt to Italian culture", according to Mr Presutti.

Mr Astolfi agrees: "People from the Nordics might be a bit more cold, [while] an Italian client would appreciate being greeted in a very warm way."

However, Mr Baratta does not share this view: "I don't think Italians would expect [you to act like them].

"They know you're coming from a different culture."

He adds that being open and friendly with professional contacts may even be bad for business.

"In a business situation the last thing you want to do is overstep the mark because you can jeopardise the business relationship – and that could have painful consequences."

He adds: "The cultural barriers in a business environment are a bit of a minefield."

Dress to impress

Fashion is one of Italy's largest industries, so it should come as no surprise that Italians believe in taking pride in their appearance.

"You need to be quite smart and au fait in terms of the way you dress," says Mr Baratta.

"[In Italy] it's a lot about appearance; it's a lot about how you look."

However, Mr Presutti warns against wearing clothes that are ostentatious or flashy, recommending instead that professionals dress in a formal but conventional way.

Senior staff, especially management staff, should ensure they give out "a professional image of themselves", he says.

Swap the golf course for the coffee bar

Traditionally the coffee bar is at the heart of Italian social life – but it is also the place where business relationships are forged and cultivated.

According to Mr Astolfi, while UK-based asset management professionals might conduct business on the golf course, Italians favour "going out for five minutes to drink a coffee".

He says that a lot of business is done "over a cup of coffee".

However, be sure to choose your caffeinated beverage wisely, says Simone Rosti, head of exchange traded funds at UBS Global Asset Management in Italy.

"Never drink a cappuccino after lunch or dinner. Cappuccino is just for breakfast."

With regards to evening events, socialising with business contacts in Italy is less likely to feature alcohol than in other countries, says Mr Astolfi.

Italians are, however, fond of eating out and often indulge in long lunches or dinners, says Mr Baratta.

Italian people are famously passionate about food, but "they also like the social aspect [of eating out]", says Mr Baratta.

Get to grips with Italian

Although most senior figures working in the Italian asset management industry Italy will have a good working knowledge of English, being able to speak Italian facilitates fruitful business relations.

"English is without a doubt widely spoken [in Italy] but not at the level needed to have a high-quality exchange," says Mr Presutti.

Mr David agrees, noting that "when it comes to holding a complete conversation, speaking Italian becomes crucial".

He warns: "International firms wanting to deal with Italian distribution partners could make a mistake not taking into account that interactions [...] will need to be held in Italian."

This view is also shared by Mr Astolfi. He recalls an situation where an Italian distributor decided not to include a foreign asset manager in its fund offering "simply because [the asset manager] didn't have Italian speakers on board".

Having a knowledge of the local language is also useful in fostering trust between colleagues or business partners.

"A trusted relationship depends significantly on the language skills and the non-verbal messages that go with it," says Mr David.

He adds: "In Italy, a Latin country par excellence, it is probably even more true as the language dimension means empathy and creativity."

Despite this, Italian people are open to speaking other languages and "don't have a chip on their shoulder" when it comes to their mother tongue, says Mr Baratta.

"They love anything foreign and love to show off when they speak English," he says.

Be tolerant of tardiness

Punctuality is generally considered to be a key part of maintaining positive business relations, but in Italy it is best to allow some leeway when it comes to timekeeping.

"Italians are not famous for their punctuality," says Mr Presutti.

Mr Astolfi agrees: "It's a typical Italian habit to be a little bit late. A 15-minute delay is pretty normal."

He adds: "Punctuality is not as important in Italy as it is in the Nordics and in Switzerland."

Make an effort to get to know people

Key to securing the trust of Italian contacts is getting to know the person and engaging with them.

"Once a trusted relationship is built it can become a meaningful way to generate new business opportunities thanks to personal recommendations," says Mr David.

Mr Presutti suggests initiating conversations about subjects such as "the beauty of Italy" or sport "because Italians love sport, particularly football".

Mr Baratta adds: "It's a nice touch if you know your client is a fan of a particular football team – that helps to create and establish that relationship."

However, foreign professionals should stay clear of saying anything that could be perceived as overly critical of Italy or Italian culture.

"We like to put ourselves down; we like to joke about ourselves and our little faults, such as slow bureaucracy," says Mr Baratta.However, he notes that "because I'm Italian I'm allowed to say that", warning that it would be inappropriate for a foreign national to level these same criticisms.

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