Doing business in Colombia is an attractive prospect for expats, thanks to its position as one of the more stable economies in Latin America. Colombia has been enjoying strong economic growth over the last five years, with some fluctuations due to the pandemic, global economic dynamics and domestic factors. Major industries include information technology, construction, mining, shipbuilding and tourism.
Before conducting business in Colombia, expats should familiarise themselves with the local customs that will influence their dealings in the country. Colombians are warm and expressive, emphasising the importance of family and friendship. Establishing personal relationships and building trust is crucial to a successful working environment.
Working hours are generally Monday to Friday from 8am to 6pm, with a one or two-hour lunch break.
Spanish is the official language of Colombia. Although an increasing number of businesses may have English speakers on their staff, it is advisable to engage an interpreter.
Appearance is important in Colombia. Expats should be neat and presentable and should dress conservatively in dark suits and ties for men, and dresses or suits for women. Clothing may be less formal in the warmer regions of the country.
Gifts are received well and are expected when visiting a colleague's home. Women are typically given flowers, particularly roses, while men will appreciate a bottle of liquor, as imported alcohol is expensive in Colombia. When receiving, it is polite to say thank you but wrapped gifts shouldn't be opened in front of others.
Although gender equality may be something of an issue in Colombian society, it should not be a problem for foreign businesswomen in the corporate world as they will be treated with courtesy and respect (though perhaps with some curiosity).
Business culture in Colombia
The business culture in Colombia tends to be quite formal in the major cities such as Bogotá and Medellín, with a more relaxed attitude in the hot coastal regions. Engaging in small talk before focusing on business concerns is essential, and Colombians prefer doing business in person. They favour face-to-face meetings over phone calls or emails.
Handshakes are central to Colombian culture and are expected upon arrival and departure, accompanied by direct eye contact and a smile. Once business partners know each other well, greetings may become warmer, and men will embrace and pat each other on the shoulder while women kiss once on the right cheek. First names should only be used once invited to do so. Initially, expats should address everyone by their title – Señor (Mr), Señora (Mrs) or Señorita (Miss) – and their surname.
Communication tends to be quite subtle and indirect in Colombian business so as not to offend. Expats should read between the lines, using context and non-verbal cues to save face. Colombians may decline without directly saying "no". Mistakes should never be pointed out in a public setting.
Though communication may be more indirect than expats are used to, Colombians are also very warm and animated communicators. Engaging in small talk and asking about family, friends and hobbies before diving into business discussions is crucial. Trust and personal relationships are central to Colombian culture. In terms of personal space, Colombians may interact within closer physical proximity than expats are used to.
Business meetings should be scheduled a few weeks in advance and confirmed closer to the time. Since time is very flexible in Colombia, it is a good idea to leave a few hours between appointments in case meetings are delayed or last longer than expected.
Meetings do not always follow the agreed-upon agenda and will generally go on as long as needed – one should not try to rush the proceedings. Corporate lunches and dinners are a popular method of conducting business in Colombia.
Attitude towards foreigners
Colombians tend to have a positive attitude towards foreigners. They'll always ask one's opinion about Colombia and how it differs from what was expected. Colombians are eager to help their country escape its sometimes poor global reputation by welcoming foreigners and emphasising the best of Colombia.
Dos and don'ts of business in Colombia
Do accept invitations to social events
Don't offer opinions on local politics or make jokes about Colombian history
Do make an effort to learn some Spanish
Don't mistake Colombian animation for aggression, as it is an emotional culture
Do take time with business dealings rather than rushing things