You are trying to do business with an Italian company, but they often reply late to emails – if at all. Their knowledge of English is at best confusing. You are transferred from office to office and never seem to get to the person you need to talk to.
I get contacted by a lot of companies that are incredibly frustrated by the way Italian firms handle aspects of business (like communication).
Ah, Italy: Passion, arts, food, great minds and culture... but things don't always run smoothly, especially business-wise.
That’s why I put together this quick guide about doing business with Italian companies,focusing on what you need to know to break into the Italian market in the digital era.
Considering it has Europe’s 4th and the world’s 9th largest economy, you’re in plentiful company if business with Italian companies is on your mind (your international market mind that is). The Italian economy slowly but surely continues to grow at a rate that was unforeseeable even two years ago.
For some, it is not the why of doing business with Italian companies, but the how that is getting in your way.
Good news! Missing or losing business opportunities because of cultural misunderstandings or missteps are one of the most easily avoidable mistakes in the global marketplace.
Business structure and management style
One of the things it pays to figure out early when dealing with Italian businesses is the management structure.
On the surface, Italian companies have a similar structure to companies around the world, including similar department and duty divisions, and positional titles. However, a peek behind the curtain would show you that the decisions might be made one or two steps removed from the person with whom you’ve been interacting!
Family is Everything
“Chi si volta, e chi si gira, sempre a casa va finire.”
Meaning: No matter where you go or turn, you’ll always end up at home.
I know you’ve seen it in movies: the strong family hierarchy, sometimes portrayed as domineering, but always at the center of Italian culture.
Even movies about the Mafia (a no-no topic by the way) always center the family above everything else. While nowhere near as dramatic as all that, when you consider that family is a vital pillar in Italian culture, it comes as less of a surprise to hear that the family-owned business model is a vital part of the Italian economy. These startling numbers illustrate just how important a part:
👉 About 85% of the total number of businesses, and 70% of all employment!
👉 Maybe you’ve heard of some of them: Fiat, Armani, and Luxottica are just a few examples
🇮🇹 Around 66% of the companies are completely managed by family
👉 Compared to France at 26% and the United Kingdom at just 10%
🇮🇹 On the list of the world’s 100 oldest businesses, 15 are Italian and 5 are in the top ten:
1. Fonderie Pontificie Marinelli (founded in 1000)
2. Barone Ricasoli (founded in 1141)
3. Barovier & Toso (founded in 1295)
4. Torrini (founded in 1369)
5. Marchesi Antinori (founded in 1385)
The take away: Many of the businesses you want to get involved with in Italy are likely to be family-owned, and may have other management and decision-making processes for you to take into account. If you take the time to figure out the real decision-making process, then you can factor it into your timelines and save your company some anxiety!
It Isn’t What You Know, It’s Who You Know
Italian companies fill management positions based off of who you know as much as what you know. Managers may enjoy a greater amount of authority depending on who they know at the higher levels of the company.
Company leaders find this sort of networking vital, as managers are expected to be authoritative (not that they should be dictators), and often find their subordinates more accepting of their decisions if they have influential business connections.
Depending on the home culture of the company you are coming from, the way Italians communicate may be overwhelming.
We love to talk, and Italians find gesturing integral in expressing ourselves. However, our gestures may seem wild compared to nearby cultures.
Italians prize face-to-face communication and direct eye contact. Not looking an Italian in the eye while in conversation could be deemed insulting.
You should keep your first communication with an Italian company formal.
Italian communication style in business emails is usually not as direct and straight-to-the-point as what you usually experience with English speaking companies. Italians also love using honorific titles, so it's smart to keep that in mind when address your Italian counterpart.
Bureaucracy and paper communication are (unfortunately) still very much a thing in Italy, although the Italian postal service is known for its inefficient management and poor service.
And a lot of companies still use fax! No kidding.
Things are (very) slowly changing, but as of now, most Italian companies (especially older ones) are somewhat “technologically behind” and / or rigid in adopting modern technology solutions for communication purposes.
For example, they might prefer a call over a video conference (even if, say, it would be more efficient to share screen over video).
However, if you do set up a video conference, dress appropriately! Dress code and appearances play a hugely important role, and an Italian (business) person will immediately judge you by the way you show up at a business meeting – even if it's just over Skype.
While not true of all Italian business correspondence habits, you might be waiting awhile for a response to an initial email inquiry.
With your emails:
👉 Don’t make your emails graphics heavy; they might not load properly
👉 Keep your pictures to a minimum, or at least make sure to optimize their size
👉 Don’t send large attachments by email, consider using a service like DropBox or GoogleDrive.
The take away: Keep your fate in your own hands and get smart about your Italian prospect’s technology so your message gets across!
Fun fact: If you google the question “Do Italians take a long time to answer emails?”, you'll see results like these:
❖ Hotels in Italy… why won't they answer email?
❖ Why don't Italian Wedding Vendors answer my emails [and how to fix it …
❖ Problems sending emails to Italy - TripAdvisor
If you're in for a laugh, have a look at this article on LifeinItaly.com where they say they used the Contact Us form on Amadei Chocolate’s website to get some info. One year laterthey finally received a response from the company’s junior press officer!
Again, dress code is very important here. Make sure you're wearing appropriate outfit for your business meetings.
Italian business meetings can seem very informal to cultural outsiders, and the smaller the meeting, the more informal it will feel. The participants often arrive or start late (a 15 minutes delay is easily tolerated), have sidebar conversations, and interrupt frequently. And, of course, meetings often taken place over lunch.
Italians are emotive and always express their passions.
You can try and impress an Italian prospect or business partner with a fancy slideshow presentation. It won’t be discounted, but Italians value the human touch, and will carefully attempt to evaluate the presenter and their knowledge of the subject at hand.
Companies in Italy will use meetings to announce decisions or assess feeling regarding a particular direction the company might be pursuing. Rarely do Italian business people make important decisions at meetings. They will hold smaller unofficial meetings where proponents of each side will lobby for their positions.
If you can adapt your meeting style, then you should definitely try. Italians feel passionately about everything, so what you perceive as reserved calculation could be interpreted as disinterest by your Italian counterparts.
Throughout my many experiences helping companies communicate via telephone, and with translation, interpretation, and consulting, I’ve seen many business relationships flourish.
So if you go into a relationship with an Italian company with your eyes open, instead of expecting them to conform to your own culture’s business etiquette standards, you have a much better chance at forming a strong and profitable business relationship.
And if you're still unsure of how to go about doing business with an Italian company and don't want to leave anything to chance, contact an expert.
Your Italian counterpart will immediately warm up and appreciate the fact that they can speak their own language and culture, while doing international business.