The Finnish market has a reputation as conservative territory where successful introduction of a new product or service can take years. Its size, saturation and focus on exports are characteristics that lead to high selectivity. And while the national attitude is by no means isolationist, the Finns thoroughly vet their foreign partners, which means that having good references is a must.
In spite of being perched on the northern edge of Europe, with a small consumer market and a conservative approach, the conditions for doing business in Finland are among the best in the world in terms of the levels of both economic freedom and trade-friendly legislation. With an advanced economy supported by high education levels and work productivity, Finland regularly holds leading positions in renowned international league tables.
Additional advantages are that unlike its neighbors, Finland uses the euro, and while its taxes are among the highest in the EU, Finns have a lower tax burden than other Scandinavians. The key is to pay attention to all of these details from the onset, and approach a potential Finnish trade partner with thoughtful honesty.
Finland is a culturally homogeneous country, and yet its people generally relate to foreigners with friendliness and respect. One Finnish custom that may seem counter-intuitive in a reserved culture is to address people by their first names, regardless of whether they are colleagues, customers or business partners. This may feel impolite at first, but it is one of the Finns’ means of expressing their desire for relationship.
Another is sharing the sauna, which is so popular that it is one of the country’s national symbols. Privately its use is ubiquitous, but even for business negotiations the sauna is so deeply rooted in Finnish custom that every larger company or institution has its own warm sauna where agreements and contracts are often arranged. For the otherwise reserved Finns, a sauna offers the opportunity to relax and express oneself more openly and directly, so don’t be surprised if your business dinner is followed by an invitation to the sauna.
A few decades ago, the Finns as a general rule were still considered quiet and introverted. These days there is a greater openness in the culture, but they remain more often better listeners than orators. The roles of the speaker and the listener should always be respected and remain clear — interrupting is considered very rude.
It is also a good idea to keep emotions in check; different opinions are welcome, but overly temperamental language or excessive gesticulation discredit the speaker. Instead, Finnish trade partners will appreciate focused meetings driven by precise preparedness, including a discussion that offers review of every subject one at a time and a priority of ensuring that both negotiating parties correctly understand all the details of the arrangement.
Verbal communication (with strong eye contact) is so important in Finland that spoken words can carry the weight of written arrangements. Therefore, you can expect the Finns to take you at your word. Do not make promises that you cannot keep, and with the goal of avoiding complications later, try to make sure that all points are clear.
Negotiations should not be started with casual conversation, because such formalities are considered meaningless, or even obstructive, and will give an impression that you are not serious. Personal questions such as “How are you?” should be avoided because in general they are only used among real friends and long-term business partners in Finland.
The most lasting way to build trust is by fulfilling agreed-upon deadlines and delivery terms. Late arrivals or non-fulfillment of delivery deadlines are absolutely unacceptable. It is best to agree on meetings with Finnish business partners 14 days in advance, and if there will be any change or you will be a bit late, call immediately, explain the reason, apologize and accurately specify the time when you can meet.
Then of course there is the product itself. You can succeed in the Finnish market if you present a competitive product for a competitive price, so in negotiations you must be able to explain exactly why and how your products or services are better than those offered by local competition. The tendency of Finnish companies to trust other Finnish companies is strong, which to a certain extent can be attributed to patriotism and national pride. Foreign partners and companies are usually only welcome after a period of trust-building, and so it can take a long time to establish good relations. However, the stable economy, consumer base, and culture of Finland make this effort extremely worthwhile.