Belgium lies at the geographical heart of Europe. The country has a tradition of openness and can be seen as the cradle of European unification. Brussels is known as a capital of Europe because of its role as the administrative centre of the European Union.
There are four questions you have to ask yourself when attending a meeting in Belgium: how to prepare for it, how to act during it, how to close it and what you can aspect after the meeting. If you want to conduct a meeting in Belgium you have to be prepared and be aware of the fact that preparation takes time. The Belgians want to establish a solid relationship before conducting meetings with people.
In general the Belgian people are conservative and careful. To make yourself trustworthy it will pay to have some knowledge about Belgium itself and the company you want to do business with. For the meetings themselves you must be prepared for long discussions, as all alternatives will be discussed. It won’t be appreciated if you arrive late to a meeting. One of the most important things is to send the agenda listing the topics of the meeting so that the Belgian participants can make their own preparations.
At the first meeting with a company, it is best to introduce yourself to all the other participants with a handshake, a smile and direct eye contact. Your Belgian business partner will always start with some small talk, and a small joke is allowed to break the ice. Make sure your phone is off or at least silenced, as it is considered rude to take a phone call during a meeting.
The Belgians like to have structured meetings. That is why all topics will be discussed in the order in which they are mentioned in the agenda. Between the Wallonia and Flanders there are differences about how meetings go. People from Wallonia stick to a more hierarchical way of discussion. This means that the manager will talk continually and one can only enter into a discussion with a manager after he has finished talking. In a meeting with Flemish people, there will be more interaction between the managers and employees. Flemish meetings are more open and informal compared to those in Wallonia.
At the end of a meeting it is a custom to give a summary of the topics that have been discussed. Belgians like to have an overview of the meeting. If there is another meeting scheduled for the future, always inform your business partner about the date, time and location. Before you leave, you should thank all the attendees. After the meeting you will have a chance to work on building a relationship. Hand out your business card (written in Dutch and French) and have a talk with them to show you are willing to put some effort in creating a solid business relation. If you are invited for lunch or dinner, take the opportunity to win their trust. This also gives you a chance to talk over the meeting (this is well accepted in Belgium). Other subjects you can talk about are Belgium history and the food and beverages they produce in Belgium. This makes it is advisable to have some knowledge about these topics (Boersma, Seijts and Kamlag, 2012).
There are a number of differences between meetings with Flemish and Walloon trade partners. At Flemish meetings the negotiations take place with a group in which everyone exerts influence on the negotiation process. Flanders involves also the staff with a lower function. Walloons like to represent themselves with group employees. However, only the manager negotiates and takes decisions. This because of their Latin influences.
The following rules apply to closing deals:
- Both groups must be competent in making business;
- A complete agreement between the groups must exist;
- Coercion or fraud cannot be spoken of;
- The agreement is related to a legitimate object;
- The cause of the operation must be lawful.
Furthermore it is useful to mention appointments such as the delivery deadline in the contract, these are binding and can be skilful when there are disputes.
Belgians are polite and respectful people who gladly listen to others. Belgians will not interrupt a conversation quickly. They are open-minded to outside information and will engage anyone in a discussion on facts, principles, or theories. Flemings listen to each other “in a circle”. They are very attentive, as the end result is likely to be an amalgamation of all ideas put forward. Everyone should know the strategy. In Wallonia, the meetings are mostly for briefings. The most senior person with the highest authority in the group leads the meetings and will have the most say in taking decisions. Staff do not always know what the strategy is.
Belgians like to get to know with whom they will be doing business. The first meeting with a new contact may be low-key and devoted to making social contact. In Belgium relationship-building is very important and the warmth of personal discussions and trust will be important to the success of business ventures there.Decisions within the three Belgian districts have three distinct decision-making processes. In Wallonia, even after long discussion, the final decision is usually made by the person with the highest authority in the negotiating group. While in less hierarchical Flanders, a group is more likely to be reached a decision by consensus. Therefore, to all members of the negotiating group should be heeded. In Brussels, where the administrative centre of Europe and many international companies are established, decisions are taken in a more international manner such happens in the US and the UK.
Belgians are polite and purposeful people. They are not aggressive and prefer to avoid confrontation. Belgians like to discuss decisions and will only rarely make a decision directly after a conversation, preferring to take a little time to consider. Belgians are specialists in closing compromises. They can appear detached and do not immediately say what they think. In the worst case a Belgian says no when he means yes and vice versa.