The Netherlands (often referred to as Holland, although in fact Holland only covers two provinces of the Netherland Kingdom, Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland) is a small country that is flat as a ‘Dutch Pancake’ from head to toe, almost 25% of its land is at, or below, sea level, with the odd rolling hill interspersing the landscape. Synonymous with an eclectic mix of cultural quirks and traditions, the Netherlands gave birth to world-renowned artists such as Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Vermeer. It introduced the world to its sumptuous offerings of cheese, such as Gouda and Edam, and is particularly iconic for the canals of Amsterdam, bicycles, tulips, wooden clogs and windmills. Let’s not forget the obsession for mayonnaise-smothered chips, which has been emulated across the world. Interestingly it is also home to the world’s tallest people (men’s average height comes in at 184 cm, whilst women are around 170 cm on average)!
So what do we know about their economy and business? Firstly, the Netherlands is considered a leader in global knowledge and they rank 8th in the world in terms of the largest export economy. Secondly, they predominantly export transport equipment and machinery, petroleum and mineral-based fuels, food and agricultural products, not forgetting that they are the largest beer and tulip exporter worldwide. And businesswise, they are deemed particularly innovative and entrepreneurial. So it would appear that the Netherlands is a worthwhile international investment. And with all international ventures, what are the key criteria to take on board to ensure a smoother negotiation process and steadfast business relationship? Well, that would be as with any country, research the Netherlands way of conducting business, by appreciating their culture and business etiquette.
N ote that the Dutch are private people and will not appreciate you prying into their private lives asking them about their family, religious tendencies or their political stance. You would also do well to avoid discussing your own personal life, family and business achievements. Conversations are best kept impersonal.
E xpect business meals to be short and sweet, as the Dutch are less about social bonding and more about developing trust in a business relationship and getting back to business (Time is money! – see below). Lunch would perhaps be a quick visit to the work canteen for a meal, or a trip to the local café or restaurant to order the dagschotel (daily special). It would be a rarity to be invited to a Dutch person’s home as part of business negotiations.
T ime is money when carrying out business in the Netherlands. Dutch business people are very time conscious and take pride in working hard and doing a first-rate job. They do not look favourably on tardiness or laziness; so don’t earn yourself a bad reputation before you’ve even managed to win your potential clients over. Make punctuality a priority.
H andshakes at the beginning of the meeting are important and should be firmly applied to everyone attending. Providing your name and a simple greeting along the lines of Goedemorgen (good morning) or Aangenaam (kennis te maken) (pleased to meet you) will also go a long way, as will direct eye contact, which portrays trustworthiness. It is not necessary to hand over your business card at this point.
E xchange of business cards usually happens towards the end of a meeting or afterwards, but there is no particular ritual such as occurs in Japan. Nevertheless, it is always wise to observe the usual courtesies in business by turning up with undamaged business cards and show respect by handling your client’s card with care. Many Dutch business cards provide home addresses and phone numbers, but do not think this is an invitation to phone them at home, especially out of office hours. As most Dutch are fluent in English it is not necessary to have your business cards translated, but if you have a qualification surpassing a BA, then by all means display it on your business card, as education is greatly respected by the Dutch. On the other hand it is highly recommended having promotional information or product brochures translated by a professional translation company, and printed on high quality paper by professional printers, as first impressions count for a lot!
R estaurant etiquette is something to be aware of if you have been invited to a restaurant as part of your business trip. Showing a democratic attitude to waiting staff and your clients is expected, as will following a few simple and respectful rules. For instance, be sure to switch off your mobile phone, do not pick up the wine list, this is the host’s prerogative, order the same amount as your Dutch colleagues and try not to leave anything on your plate.
L ike the Scandinavian trio, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, the Dutch also rank high on the English-speaking scale, speaking the language to almost near native level. However, it will never go amiss learning at least a few basic phrases. They may well be fluent, but it always shows respect to your clients by at least attempting to speak their language. Dankuwel (thank you), Hallo (Hello), Tot ziens / Dag (good bye) and Goedemiddag (good afternoon) are just a few to get you started.
A gift is not expected during business negotiations and is in fact not a common practice. Dutch, on the whole, prefer not to give or accept gifts, as they do not like to feel obligated. If you really feel that you would like to offer some sort of present, perhaps after a contract has been signed or an agreement finalised, then keep your offering humble and neutral. Attaching your business card to the present or giving something printed with your business logo is unwise and far from modest!
N egotiation tactics need to be egalitarian, as Dutch society does not adhere to the hierarchical way of doing business; they believe everyone should have their say, therefore be prepared at a meeting, they will expect everyone to contribute in some way or another. Coming across as superior or overbearing will not be welcome. However, being open, frank and honest will be more than appreciated, as they are a plain-spoken people, saying exactly what they think and want nothing more than concrete facts, data and statistics. An evasive attitude and embellishment of information will go down like a ton of Gouda!
D utch favour prompt follow ups of negotiations in the form of a written record of any actions or decisions made during the meeting directed at all attendees. They also value clearly laid out deadlines and prefer receipt of contracts or important business correspondence to be sent via post, although email is acceptable.
S chedules are set well ahead of time, often weeks or months in advance, as the Dutch are sticklers for planning for the long term, whether it be for social or business reasons. It would therefore be good practice to follow suit if you want to get along with your Dutch counterparts. Organise any meetings at least one or two weeks in advance, preferably around 10am or early afternoon, but don’t worry about reconfirming. Do however try and avoid missing or postponing appointments, or changing times, as this could lead them to believe you are not committed to your cause and potentially send your business relationship head first and sinking down one of their many waterways!
Just as you would research a company in which you would like to invest, the same rules apply to international ventures. Get acquainted with the Netherland’s culture and business etiquette; learn a bit about their history and geography and your investment will be as solid as one of their wooden clogs!
By Madeline Prusmann, Project Manager, September 2017