It may surprise some Canadians to learn that Canada has had a free trade agreement with Colombia since 2011. More than 100 Canadian companies have a presence in Colombia and two-way trade in 2017 topped $1.73 billion, making it Canada’s fifth largest trading partner in Latin America and the Caribbean (excluding, of course, Mexico.)
But while the relationship is strong and the groundwork has been laid, there’s plenty of room for growth. To that end, we consulted two Export Development Canada (EDC) customers about their experiences on the ground in Colombia. Carlos Caro is the director of sales and channel development for tech company Sera4 in Latin America, and Mattia Tassinari is the export sales manager for WATERAX Inc., a Montreal manufacturer of water pumps for fighting fires. Both have extensive experience working in Colombia.
10 etiquette tips for doing business in Colombia
1. Speak the language: While it’s not essential, having a representative who speaks Spanish will be a boon to any Canadian company looking to do business in Colombia. “I speak Spanish fluently,” Tassinari says. “For me, that has opened up way more doors. They’re impressed when they meet a foreigner who speaks Spanish.” Caro adds that even if your Colombian counterparts speak English, it’s not their first language, so it’s best to speak slowly and double check to ensure they’ve understood everything you’ve said.
2. Hierarchy is important: “Colombians are very open, very professional,” Tassinari says. “And they like titles. They like to meet people at the top of your organization and they love foreigners who come to visit them.”
3. Dress it up: In Bogota, the capital of Colombia, the work attire is formal, so men and women should wear business suits there, especially on a first meeting. In other parts of the country, the suit can be dressed down. “Outside of Bogota, it can be less mandatory to wear a tie, for example,” Caro says.
4. Business in boardrooms: Business often takes place in boardrooms, especially in the early stages. Once a relationship is well-established and ongoing, meetings may be held in a restaurant for lunch or dinner. However, meetings with government officials, regardless of when they occur, are always in offices, Tassinari says.
5. Mind the clock: Punctuality on the part of their guests is important to Colombians, but Caro says it isn’t always reciprocated. “Nevertheless, you should always show professionalism. If you’re having a training session, build in a buffer in case your counterparts are late. Sometimes key decision-makers come only for the last 10 minutes of a meeting.” Caro says to keep in mind that traffic in Latin America is almost always jammed, especially in Bogota. He says it would be unrealistic to expect to successfully get through more than three meetings in Bogota in one day and advises that planning only two is a safer bet.
6. Negotiation is part of the game: In Latin America, “everyone negotiates,” Tassinari says. Caro adds that it’s important to do your homework on pricing, including the local prices in your sector. He says you should also be prepared to present arguments to defend your price. If you’re well-informed on what your competition is offering, you can change not only the price, but maybe the payment terms, for example, to make your offer more attractive. But expect some bartering.
7. Patience is a must: Business takes a little longer in Colombia than it does in North America and it can often feel like it’s one step forward and two steps back, Caro says. Sometimes it’s not the company causing the slowdowns—it can also be regional politics and uncertainty. “Pay attention to the politics in Latin America,” he advises. “Sometimes the guy in the field isn’t moving forward because of something beyond his control, so you have to be aware of the politics. They are more volatile than North America.”
8. Facetime matters: Even if you have a representative in Latin America who is looking after your business, your counterparts still want to see you and senior members of your team. Travelling to spend time with them might make the difference in securing future deals. “You have to show your face,” Caro says. “If you have an agent, you may not have to go as often, but you still have to go periodically.”
9. Make them feel supported: What happens if something goes wrong with your product or service? Is calling someone in Canada your customer’s only option? “Regardless of the quality of the product, it is critical for the customer to know and feel that the chosen vendor will have the structure and tools to support them appropriately,” Caro says.
10. Do your due diligence in their language: Having your documentation prepared in Spanish will tell your customers you’re ready to do business in Latin America. And don’t just use Google translate, Caro advises, as your customers will see through that.