Finland Has A Selling Problem

Finland doesn’t sell itself well. Surely this is a bold statement to make right out of the gate, but it’s one that needs to be made nonetheless. Home to some iconic brands like Nokia and Angry Birds, Finland has a host of other great products and services few will ever know about. Those products and services may be high quality but have not been seared onto the public consciousness like a can of Coke or an iPhone because of Finland’s failure to market (and sell) its products well enough to markets beyond Finland.

Companies like Coke and Apple are adaptive and react to the general buying style of the markets they’re selling to. Selling is selling no matter where you sell, but the process needs to be tweaked in order to accommodate the audience. In Finland, sales revolve around forging strong relationships with prospective customers in order to foster trust before any buying takes place. You have to know some people who know some people. That may be true everywhere but it’s especially true in Finland because it’s a small country with a limited ecosystem of players who can make purchasing decisions. In America, I can get on the phone with an innumerable number of prospects and eventually close a deal if I had a good product or service, did my due diligence, and carefully took my prospect through the sales process. Not so here in Finland. No matter how good your service or product is, if a Finnish decision maker doesn’t know who you are, then you’re not closing anything except the door when you leave without the order. 

When I first started selling in Finland, I sold like an American salesperson and often left without a sale. I was an outsider without the right connections. A few years ago I got on the phone with a director-level person at a well-known Finnish company, made a good pitch, and was ‘psyched’ that l landed an appointment. My excitement didn’t last long. During the initial sales meeting, I engaged in some small talk (bad move) to develop rapport, asked open probe questions, handled those objections and made a good case, and felt pretty good about there being an opportunity to do business. Then, out of the blue, he gave me an objection I didn’t handle well. He asked me whom I knew in the Finnish business community. I gave him some referrals that I thought were pretty impressive, but I failed to see what he was truly asking at the time. What he wanted to know was, “Do you know the people I know and, if not, why should I trust my business with you?”. Suffice it to say, I left without the order but also with a better understanding of what needed to be done. It was not enough to ‘vibe’ on the phone or in person with superficialities like small talk that Finns looked at with mistrust and suspicion. That American-style didn’t play well in Finland. 

Finnish people, both in business and personally, need to know who you are, what you represent, and your values before engaging in business with you. They want to feel that the business relationship they forge with you is built on a steady foundation grounded in mutual trust and respect because business relationships tend to last longer here than in the states. 

I started to humbly ask respected business people for advice. I developed deeper relationships with these folks and got to know them. After an almost endless stream of coffees at cafes, lunches and dinners at local restaurants, and sauna sessions with various decision makers, doors began to slowly open. I had to come out of my comfort zone and adopt a new approach to establishing rapport and trust if I wanted to work with Finnish companies.

In Finland, the sauna is ground zero for building and strengthening personal and business ties. Although I was initially uncomfortable being naked in the sauna with people I didn’t know well, I had to open up to Finnish business people if I wanted them to. I overcame my initial wariness about being in the sauna naked and adapted to the Finnish way of operating. As a result of becoming more relationship-oriented in my sales approach, influencers, decision makers, and organizations started helping me get the word out about my executive coaching and sales training workshops because they started to trust me. I started landing deals, doing good work, and being referred to other potential clients. I adapted and the Finnish companies that sell products and services beyond Finland need to adapt as well. 

Finns can not attract customers outside Finland with just a great product or service. No matter how good the product or service is, if it's not marketed and sold well, nobody will know or care. That's why Finnish companies need to arm their sales staff with the tools to sell to markets beyond Finland or face utter and complete annihilation by its competitors. Good enough in Finland is not nearly good enough when selling on the international stage. Make no mistake about it. There's a war going on and it's a war that will be lost if Finland doesn't “gear up" and prepare to outsell and out-brand its competition. In effect, Finnish companies need to adapt their sales and marketing approaches to the markets they’re trying to reach. 

Sales operators or smooth-talking salespeople, for example, are regarded with suspicion in Finland. Handle an objection like a slick-talking Wall Streeter and you run the risk of being reviled for it. However, it may be just that style that will help Finnish companies penetrate markets like the US. Moreover, Finnish companies need to be holistic in their sales approaches by accommodating whatever culture they may be selling to. There is no fixed way to sell. Rather, a variety of styles and approaches need to be adopted to make a Finnish sales person operating at the international level successful. 

Adopting new sales skill sets and perspectives may be uncomfortable for a Finnish salesperson and/or company at first, but with the right training and attitude, it can be done if the sales person or company understands and adapts to the cultural factors that influence buying and selling behavior. For example, we Americans are taught in kindergarten that everyone in our class has an opportunity to be President if we work hard, but even at 6 years old we know that we can't all be President. We will have to compete. We have to be the best and that means outdoing and outworking the competition, our classmates. This idea of competition is ingrained on Americans from the very beginning and has allowed America to become the marketing and sales juggernaut it is today. A Finnish sales rep selling in America doesn’t only need to know this intellectually, they need to make a fundamental change in attitude and behavior. In short, they’re going to have to use the same ‘sales language’ Americans are accustomed to or risk losing the order to a competitor who knows how to. Likewise, a Finnish person selling in China will need to understand that traditional Western sales approaches will likely not resonate with a Chinese company and that when a Chinese business person says ‘Yes’, they may really mean ‘No’ because it is important to ‘save face’ and avoid conflict in their culture. 

Without a clear understanding or ability to transcend the ‘Finnish-way’ of doing things, Finland and its international salespeople will continue to have a selling problem.