Building up relationships slowly and surely rather than through a hard-sell approach is the key to cashing in on Chile's ambitious five-year construction programme.
With a £60bn infrastructure programme up for grabs, the trade mission to Chile next month led by construction minister Nick Raynsford is just one initiative that hopes to open doors to British contractors and consultants (29 September, page 14).

Although Chile is looking to model procurement forms on British practice, companies unfamiliar with doing business in the country would do well to take notice of different cultural conventions.

Two key aspects of Chilean culture are loyalty to the family and "personalism". Extended families live and socialise with each other creating the primary source of structure and stability in society, and this impacts on business decision-making. It is vital that visitors demonstrate membership of the business "group" that they are working with – this is even more important than their industry expertise.

Personal authority counts for a great deal in the workplace, and despite complex hierarchies and bureaucratic procedures, this personal touch means that the rules of an organisation can often be bypassed.

Company decisions are also shaped by personalism. For example, a president of one firm spent more than a year getting on easy personal terms with the president of an equivalent Argentine company before the collaboration began to turn into a proposal for a joint venture. "We have to eat from the same dish" before any business deal can take place, was how he put it. Once the personal relationship was firm enough, a written contract with onerous clauses was unnecessary because they considered each other trustworthy friends. Getting to know the person you are working with is part of every business deal in Chile and these personal connections can really come into play when dealing with officialdom.

Third parties are important for making contacts, so gain the help of banks or consulting firms that may be able to make introductions on your behalf.

As machismo is an important aspect of Chilean culture, do not criticise a person in public, pull rank or do anything that will cause embarrassment.

There is less racial diversity in Chile than in most Latin American countries. More than 90% of the population is mestizo (of mixed Spanish and native Indian ancestry) and there has been much less immigration than in Argentina and Brazil.

Getting to know the person you are working with is part of every business deal in Chile

Chile's official language is Castilian Spanish, although some terms used in Chile will not have the same meaning as in other Spanish-speaking countries. Although English is understood by well-educated business people, it is important to use Spanish in all business documents and trade literature. Business cards should be bilingual.

It is customary for people to use their full name (including both father's and mother's family names) or their father's family name, which is the official surname. For example, Eduardo José Pérez García would be known as "Señor Pérez". His junior managers might call him "Don Eduardo".

When negotiating, Chileans are straightforward and take the process seriously. Of all the South American countries, Chile's business atmosphere is one of the most formal; correct etiquette and dress are expected. Chileans do not like an overly assertive or hard-sell approach. Kindness and respect for others are valued, and therefore people who appear aggressive will be avoided.

Decision-making resides mostly with the presidente or gerente general. Beneath these levels comes the gerente followed by middle and junior managers. But as everyone contributes to a decision, business transactions take place at a slower pace than in the UK. The best approach is to be patient, expect to be delayed and bear in mind that a few trips may be necessary before a deal can be concluded. In fact, willingness to return to the country, despite the distance involved, shows commitment to the business relationship.

Punctuality for business meetings is appreciated and expected, but don't be offended if your Chilean colleague is up to 30 minutes late. For social events everyone is expected to be late – by about 15 minutes for dinner and 30 minutes for a party. Remember that holidays are generally taken in January and February, the Chilean summer.

Business entertaining is normally done at major hotels or large restaurants. The main meal of the day is generally lunch, a lighter meal being eaten between 8pm and 10pm. It would be considered impolite not to stay for conversation after the meal. As Chileans are very proud of their local wines, especially white wines, this is a good topic for conversation. Football is also popular, of course, as well as skiing, swimming, art, theatre and music. In areas where cattle are important, rodeo is very popular. It's best to avoid topics such as politics, human rights violations and religion.