Doing business in Russia

Saint Basils Cathedral in Russia on a snowy day.

Worldwide media coverage, good, bad and controversial, has highlighted the fact the Russians are their own people. They have different viewpoints, perspectives and opinions. Much of this comes down to culture.

So what better time to have a look at some basics of doing business in Russia! Most newcomers to business in Russia struggle but sometimes a few good manners and an understanding of the culture can make all the difference.

Good first impressions

Making a good first impression is important wherever you are. In Russia, they like things formal. Typically you will receive a rather firm handshake followed by the greeting for that time of day. These are – dobraye utra (good morning), dobryy den (good afternoon) or dobryy vecher (good evening). Using a bit of the local lingo always makes you look good!

Always start with surnames. Wait for your counterpart to move to first names; and once they’ve done that you know things are going in the right direction. Initially, refer to your counterpart by either gaspodin (a courtesy title similar to “Mr.”) or gaspazhah (similar to “Mrs.” or “Miss”) plus their surname.

Remember to take a business card with you too and ensure it’s translated into Russian. It looks good and will help you stand out. As a tip, try to add any formal qualifications or titles you might have – Russians respect status and this will help raise your rank.

Business meetings

As with many other countries in the world, Russians will expect you to be on time but also expect you to expect them to be late! No matter how frustrating it might be, do your best to be on time and always stay calm if left waiting; no offence is intended. It is not unheard of for Russian business people to turn up several hours late. In fact, a good indication of how serious a meeting is taken is how punctual they are.

Meetings in the initial stages of a relationship will be very formal. This is the time to be on your best behaviour as your credibility is being assessed. Formal introductions should be made, and intentions made clear. The most important things to get across at this stage are your experience, status, connections and abilities. Fancy pitches and presentations don’t go down well (dependent on sector); Russians like it clear, concise and logical.

Language can be an issue in Russia although levels of English are constantly improving. Try to find out who you are meeting and see if an interpreter will be needed; if so, make sure you take your own interpreter who can act in your interests, not the other way around.

Negotiations can be quite different in Russia. They like them tough, and they love a bit of theatre in the mix too – so if your counterparts storm out of your meeting with arms flapping, don’t get too worried. The aim behind this is to play for time, gain concessions and mentally break the other side down. Don’t show any weakness or you will be eaten alive!  Stand your ground, be polite and explain your reasoning.

Entertaining… oh, and vodka!

Much of business life in Russia takes place through entertaining, and yes, vodka is usually a central part of this. If you are invited out, accept it. If you don’t, it could ruin or at least sour a relationship. Let your hair down and have a good time but never discuss or do business outside of the formal business setting – keep your cards close to your chest.

Refusing to drink alcohol is a no-no; for many people, they just can’t compute how a human being would not imbibe. Be sure to be clear from the very beginning that it is not for you citing health, religious or some other plausible reason for staying dry.