Although a traditionally hierarchical business culture, the influx of international companies in India means organisational structures can vary. However, the Indian regard for title and status, and the tendency to defer to their superiors, means that decisions are usually taken at the top even if more levels of the company are consulted now than they would have been in the past. Processes and protocol are strictly adhered to so the implementation of new ideas can take time, but can be widely adopted and embraced if rolled-out effectively.
New managers in India often find juxtaposition between the traditions and values that inform business in the country and the willing and competitive workforce in the country. Traditionally, each person had a distinct role in the organisation, and supervisors were expected to monitor an individual's work for quality and punctuality. However, many Indians, particularly the well-educated and ambitious youth of the workforce, are now keen to take a more active role within the organisation. As a result, more companies are embracing the autonomous approach of giving employees more responsibility.
Even in businesses where the hierarchical structure is becoming less prevalent, individual respect is important. Titles help people to quickly establish the relationships and positions within a group, so it is usual to address contacts by their title and surname at all times unless you are invited to do otherwise. In some Indian firms it is not uncommon to find colleagues of many years using the same levels of formality as new employees might use on day one.
Personal relationships are valued in India. Most people like to build personal relationships and a mutual level of trust before entering into a business arrangement. Make sure you take an interest in the family and personal lives of your contacts and expect to be asked similar questions in response. It can also be useful to be introduced to new contacts by common acquaintances.
Business attire in India is not necessarily always formal, but can be best characterised as conservative. In a formal setting, men should wear dark coloured business suits and women usually select business suits or dresses. In warmer regions, dress may be less formal, but you should always be modest and avoid ostentatious or flashy accessories. Bear in mind that India has many different cultures and religions, so make sure that your dress is appropriate to the customs of your contacts.
Although it is normal to shake hands when greeting colleagues or contacts in India, some women prefer not to greet men with a handshake. If you are unsure, it may be better to wait and see if a hand is offered than to initiate the greeting yourself. When exchanging business cards, make sure you position the card so it can be read immediately.
It is best to schedule meetings or appointments at least one month in advance and confirm just prior to the date. Appointments are typically scheduled for late morning or early afternoon to allow time for preparation beforehand. Usually, schedules and deadlines are taken quite seriously in India, so it pays to be on time and you should always call to apologise if this is not possible. However, priorities can change quickly, particularly in more hierarchical businesses, so important deadlines should still be checked and reinforced by managers.
Meetings in India usually feature small talk at the beginning, with family top of the topic list. Discussions are initiated by the more senior people in the room, with subordinates invited to add detail as required. Indians favour an indirect style of communication, so avoid declarative statements, particularly when expressing a negative view. The decision-making process can be slow as Indians prefer to evaluate information and make a rational, informed decision. Sincerity and honesty are valued over sales tactics, so don’t be pushy or try to speed up the process – this will be seen as rude and impatient and may hinder your chances of closing a deal.
Be aware of the diverse cultures of India and try to avoid confusing the customs of one group of people with another. Remember that many Indians are vegetarian and do not drink alcohol, either on religious grounds or as a cultural choice, so consider your choices of food and drink when dining with your Indian contacts.
While there are many different languages and dialects spoken in India, English is widely used as a common languages and the majority of Indians speak at least a little. In the largest cities, where more international businesses are based, it is very possible for English speakers to live and work without needing any knowledge of a local language. However, if your work takes you to more rural areas, you may need a translator to assist you.