How to effectively sell Balkan software services on the Nordic market

Timo Railo
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In order to sell better IT and software services to Nordics, it helps to understand a few things about Nordic culture and expectations. As a Finn who has been dealing with both Balkan and Nordic IT cultures for a long time, I’ve seen how seemingly small details can make or break a deal.

This article is not about how to sell IT services in general — there is another post coming about that — but about what to take into consideration when selling to Nordic clients. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to write about cultures and expectations without resorting to some pretty rough generalizations, apologies for that in advance. Many of the things are not exclusive to Nordic clients alone, but their importance is worth highlighting.

As a software company, why should I care about the Nordic market?

Long story short, to give you seven good reasons:

    1. Underdeveloped nearshoring market – The nearshoring market is still fairly underdeveloped in Nordic countries. Covid-19 has opened many eyes, so the relative demand from these countries is higher than in most other market areas. A growing number of organizations are looking to outsource and insourcing is decreasing.
    2. Excellent business environment – Nordic countries have an excellent business environment. It’s rather telling that EuCham lists the top four countries in Europe for business to be Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland.
    3. Cultural match – There is a good cultural match between Bulgaria and the Nordic countries, especially Finland. Mixed teams with talent from Bulgaria and the Nordics tend to work well together.
    4. Nordic clients are usually nice to work with – They have a humane and inclusive culture, interesting projects, modern technologies, good working processes, good briefing, and enough time to do things right.
    5. Good price level – The Nordic price level is one of the highest in Europe. Even though nearshoring hasn’t oversaturated the market, the Nordic companies have already learned firsthand that the hourly price alone can be a poor total cost indicator with contracting.
    6. Vendor loyalty – Once you’ve built trust, you can usually build a very long relationship with Nordic clients. Vendor loyalty tends to be higher in Nordic countries than in most other markets.
    7. Bulgaria’s reputation – As Bulgaria is still fairly unknown as an IT destination in the Nordic market, there aren’t that many negative connotations.

    These are some of the reasons that make Nordics an attractive target market. Unfortunately, it’s not the easiest market to enter and cold outreaches have a very low success rate.

    Approaching Nordic companies to sell nearshoring

    Balkan companies approaching Nordic ones without any referral or brand recognition will unfortunately typically drop into the same bucket as all the South East Asian countries. It doesn’t matter whether your company is big or small — the client would not see much difference. There are some exceptions to the rule of course; if you have very specific technical expertise, clients might notice you based on that. But more likely not.

    The Nordic mentality for buying IT services differs considerably from the American one for example. People deal with people they know or come through a referral. Nordic countries each have a saying in the tone of “Norway is not a country, it’s a club.” And if you are not a member of the club, things will be harder. Especially the USA is a much bigger country, so companies and people are more open to working with people and companies they don’t know from before, so much so, that it’s an integral part of business culture. Also, many countries are much more receptive to outbound sales, whereas many from the Nordics consider active sales efforts as being too pushy.

    All this doesn’t mean that you can’t work with the Nordics, it just means that you need to find a way in. Once you are in, things are easier and you might get referred further. A couple of Balkan software companies we’ve worked with for several years are already starting to gain some recognition in the market. At East, we can help you establish trust so that you get the door open and start pitching from a stronger position.

    The Nordic countries are not the most crowded in the world. Maybe this is part of the reason for having a higher proportion of introverted people. You don’t see Finns talking to strangers on the bus, because the only socially acceptable small talk topic would be the weather, the subject quickly exhausted. However, don’t be afraid to do business with Finns. Once you get to know them better, you can count on their loyalty and friendly cooperation.

    Winning a pitch when selling IT services to the Nordics

    In order to start mapping out your strategy for winning a sales pitch, try to find an answer or at least make some assumptions about these questions:

    1. Service model – What is the service model the Nordic client is looking for? Is the client expecting a fixed offer or is it time and material? This might not always be 100% clear.
    2. Competition – Are there other service providers outside of the Nordics? Is the client after the cheapest price?
    3. Language – How comfortable are the people in the client organization in English? Is this something that might affect the decision? Is the interest big enough to look for a native speaker for project management?
    4. Brief – How good is the briefing? Can you ask for examples of some documents they use for the briefing? If the briefing is very shoddy, you will need better communicators in your team that also understand business requirements.

    Understanding some cultural differences between the Balkans and the Nordics when selling professional services

    I’ll be writing another article about the cultural fit between the Balkans and the Nordics, but there are three things I’d like to note especially for this context:

    1. Communication – The Balkan way of communication can be rather abrupt. Blunt comments or negative notes can be considered extremely rude in the Nordic culture, especially in the beginning. It doesn’t mean you can’t be direct, but from a Balkan perspective, you might need to sugarcoat it. If you raise your voice, you’ve already lost it.
    2. Dishonesty – Any kind of hint of dishonesty erodes trust right away. You might think it’s the same everywhere, but trust me on this: Nordic people are more sensitive in this regard. Saying “I don’t know” or “No, I’m not good at that” is not a bad thing. Also, this one is tricky; introducing people from other organizations as your own is a bad idea. I know most companies do it and it’s a way of doing business in many markets, but one Google or LinkedIn search can turn a warm client lead colder than a frozen lake in a minute when the deception is uncovered.
    3. Inexpressive Nordics – From the Nordics, Finns, and Norwegians tend to be less animated. They can be very stone-faced in meetings, pitches, and interviews. Finn is upset when he raises an eyebrow and excited when he nods. Should they smile, it might mean that they are already sold on what you are pitching. This applies to other Nordics up to a certain degree but is most pronounced with Finns.

    Creating trust with your potential client when pitching

    As the relationship is almost entirely remote these days, it affects how trust is formed. Without trust, there is no sale. I’ve composed a list on trust-building with a Nordic organization, and although some of them might seem a little silly, they carry a surprising amount of weight. There are some that come very naturally to Balkan people but are still worth noting in my opinion.

    If your company has mainly acted as a subcontractor, some of these things will need a considerable amount of attention when you are pitching to an end client. Making the leap from subcontractor to direct relationship needs work. This is something East can help you with.

    1. Enthusiasm – Be enthusiastic about a client’s needs.
    2. Business context – Understand and be interested in the business context, not just the technical details.
    3. Consultative approach – When the client doesn’t understand exactly what they need, be sure to help them to bridge that gap. A local vendor is used to doing this, so if you only offer “work for hire”, you will never become a trusted vendor.
    4. Promises – Be on time and keep promises. If you can’t deliver something on time, inform the client in advance. Always.
    5. Written communication – Have well-thought-out and grammatically correct email correspondence and proposals. Lack of proofreading communicates too much of your organization’s general attention to detail.
    6. Video conferences – Have your video camera on at all times during a meeting. Make sure that you’ll look at the camera, your lighting is good, and that you don’t look down on the client.
    7. Ask questions – Don’t assume, and be comfortable with saying “I don’t know”, “I will find out” or “can you tell me more about…”
    8. Be responsive – Respond promptly, even if it’s just to acknowledge that you are working on their request.
    9. Professional presentations – Have professional-looking presentations and other materials. Keep in mind that professional IT buyers are used to seeing very high-quality presentations and offers. Consider hiring a designer, if you don’t have one, looks are almost as important as the content. If your presentation looks like it’s from 2000, the client easily assumes that so are your competencies in general.
    10. Do not copy-paste – Show in your proposal that you’ve put thought into it and tailor your proposal to the client’s need. Make sure it’s well-formatted and visually appealing.

    Who are the real decision-makers and buyers?

    Different countries and cultures have differences in how decision-making works. You can always ask what the decision-making timetable and process are. Many IT providers are shy about asking such questions, but I encourage you to ask — you might even earn extra points by asking. You can obviously find examples of all the generalizations in the following chapters from any of the countries, but the main characteristics tend to stand.

    In Finland, you can very often find a single decision-maker and several people who affect the decision. You might never meet these influencers, which is why it’s important to have your presentation and offer materials in good shape. Once Finns make the decision, moving forward is usually straightforward and they don’t leave you guessing.

    In Sweden, things are more often decided by a consensus of people. An initial yes might not exactly mean yes, but that it will be discussed further. And these discussions can take more time than in most other markets. Here all stakeholders have a say, so don’t make a mistake in directing your communication only to the leader.

    Norwegian organizations tend to be somewhat more hierarchical than their Swedish counterparts, though wider group discussion is valued. Norwegians tend to be more direct in communicating and if the right people are present in the meeting, decisions might be made right on the spot.

    The Danes are culturally closest to the rest of Europe and being an old trading nation, they have a lot of experience in international business. They are direct and humorous in their dealings and expect the same from others. Similar to Swedes, Danes usually consult with everyone before sealing the deal.

    Understanding certain cultural differences between the Nordics and Bulgaria

    Something that might confuse at first Balkan entrepreneurs and salespeople is that Nordic people value their free time much more. This becomes especially pronounced during the summer months when very few things move forward between midsummer and mid-August. Especially in the field of marketing, it is very common to close the entire office in July. And don’t be surprised if you get an auto-reply on the first of July, saying that the person is back on the second week of August. And yes, they might not answer emails in the meanwhile.
    Even though Finland is in the same time zone as Bulgaria, they might as well be a couple of hours ahead, as the working day tends to start earlier and finish earlier. In most cases, the kindergartens close their doors at 5 pm, so the working day finishes at 4 pm for many. Often if both parents work, they take turns on who stays later. But having a meeting starting at 4 pm is often too late and don’t be surprised if the client proposes an 8 am meeting time.

    The Nordics are a human society, where equal treatment, equal opportunities, and a good work-life balance are valued a lot. This shows also in Nordic countries being mostly gender-neutral and tolerant. Don’t make a mistake in assuming that those with trousers are the most important persons in the decision-making. Any hint of chauvinism is seen very unfavorably by both women and men.

    From a Balkan perspective, it sometimes feels that the Nordic people are dragging their feet when advancing and that they are simply not in so much of a hurry. But exactly because of this human approach, Nordic people are usually great to work with, they have the patience to do things right.

    You might wonder why your Nordic client is not answering your emails for a week or five during the summer. Well, they most probably are traveling or chilling out at their summer cottage in the countryside with family and friends – swimming, going in the sauna, eating, and doing outdoor activities. Nordic people take their vacation pretty seriously and many don’t even read emails during their few weeks of vacation. Therefore, make sure to discuss the work schedule before your client’s vacation.

    If you are looking to strengthen your market position in the Nordic market, we at East are happy to help, even if it’s just an informal discussion or sparring.

I’m a creative builder with over 25 years of experience in the IT industry. I understand the customer’s real needs and their operating environments, which allows me to find and connect the most technically and culturally most suitable experts with companies that need the best IT talent.

I currently aid Nordic companies to source talent from the Balkans and set up processes to improve the efficiency and success rate of IT offshoring and nearshoring ventures. I’ve gained my experience in the Balkans by living in Bulgaria for years and working with Balkan IT talents over a decade.

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