What Is It Like to Do Business in France?

By OptiLingo

What Should You know About French Business Meeting Protocol?

Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. France is an old country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your French language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, if you want to do business in France, it helps to understand the proper business protocols even before you begin talking to any potential partners.

How to Initiate a First Meeting

Now that we understand that making contact and building a rapport with French business people can take some time, it’s a good idea to look at the dos and don’ts of setting up a meeting. Politely following up several times will be key. Realize that even if you get a fast response at the beginning, there will likely be no commitment until you work at the relationship for a while.

Write a letter or send an email. Avoid follow-up phone calls. The French don’t like to be put on the spot. As for getting a response to your first written overture, don’t expect to receive one. But do keep following up in writing, but avoid being too pushy.

While you are deftly and politely following up, you can be assured your French counterpart is vetting your business, and evaluating you on everything from your education to your core values to your style of doing business. In fact, your expertise, experience, and background may hold more importance than your business proposal.

Perhaps the best strategy you can pursue is to try to get a referral or introduction via a mutual colleague or customer. If that’s not possible, consider asking for an introduction through your embassy or chamber of commerce. And once you do get a written reply, be prepared for a “courtship” period of correspondence, with ebbs and flows. A pause in communication does not mean the deal is dead. The recurring theme of “be patient” comes into play here.

Laying the Groundwork for Doing Business

When seeking to do business with a French company, there are some approaches that rarely work. The French do not enjoy being solicited by telephone. A cold call or even a follow-up call will be a waste of time, especially in the early stages of “getting the business.”

A telemarketing executive cold-called the headquarters of a large, Paris-based international company. She had been given a contact name by one of the company’s own employees at its London office. Despite the “in” of having a name, the call was a failure. After listening briefly, the French manager who took the call said, “no, no, Madame, we do not do things like that here,” and hung up.

Cold pitching, regardless of the means, is almost guaranteed to result in an icy reception. French companies prefer to call you, not the other way around. Stick to relationship building over time, in writing.

Once you’ve invested the time to get a meeting with the French, make no assumption that the first visit will be especially friendly. The French will be polite, but reserved, and will rarely agree to anything concrete at the first sit down. Your new French business associate will prefer to assert control over the meeting.

Speak French if you can, even if you’ve brought an interpreter. Technology has shrunk the global marketplace, and many French executives speak excellent English, but your effort won’t go unnoticed. Don’t delve into family or personal matters. Do speak to your education, experience, and industry contacts. Write a follow-up letter or email, and be sure to say thank you. Suggest the next meeting in your correspondence. Continuity of communication is key to getting the next meeting.

Quality over Deadlines

When it comes to time, schedules, agendas, and deadlines, the French business culture couldn’t be more different than that of the Americans and British. Remember, it’s all about relationship building, respect, negotiation, and diplomacy. If you are dealing with a French company, accept now that taking the time to create a real relationship with complete discussion of every nuance of the business arrangement is far more important than staying on schedule or meeting a deadline.

The French are by no means lazy or irresponsible. They take immense pride in delivering the promised goods or services; however, they want to be certain everything is in order and that everyone is on the same page before proceeding. Be patient, especially in the early stages of planning and discussion. Clear your calendar for a few hours following any scheduled meeting with French colleagues, and don’t let them catch you glancing at the clock if the meeting drags on. Be willing to schedule an additional meeting to finish the conversation if necessary.

Be as flexible as you can about deadlines, and make frequent personal communication a big part of the business relationship. In business, deadlines do matter. The French understand this, but an attitude of flexibility on your part will be greatly appreciated by your French associates. Again, it’s all about maintaining the quality and sincerity of the relationship you’ve built from day one. We’ve all heard the saying, “patience is a virtue.” When doing business with the French, this is worth repeating out loud to yourself every day.

Sorry, Not Sorry

The French emphasize responsibility, unless you mean to place the blame on them for something. This “it’s not my problem” attitude can be mind boggling. When dealing with French counterparts, be prepared for a “sorry, not sorry” response to hiccups that might occur.

A French businessman forgot to pick up a British colleague arriving by train. The Brit was counting on transportation to a meeting outside the city. When he called his associate, the Frenchman replied, “I’m not meeting you until the 15th.” The visitor informed his colleague that today was the 15th. Rather than apologizing and arranging transportation, the Frenchman said, “get a train, I’ll see you at the meeting.”

Another time, a French businessman bumped into an expensive Japanese artifact in a colleague’s office, breaking it. Rather than offering to pay for the item, the Frenchman exclaimed, “What a place to put a valuable plate!”

As for meetings, the French have a similar attitude. Don’t expect to adhere strictly to the agenda. To the French, everything on the agenda is related to everything else. You can expect some jumping around. What you can’t expect is for the meeting to end on time. The French view of deadlines is similar. Clearly state any hard deadlines. The French will understand, but may also seek to negotiate the entire schedule.

Make sure you understand the French distinction between “délai cible” (target date) and “délai ferme” (final or fixed date). Don’t underestimate the importance of taking your time in laying out plans. The French are understanding when a legitimate issue causes a delay. You should be too.