Saturday, January 18, 2014

Finnish customer service or lack thereof

This is a sensitive topic and there has been much discussion about it by Expats and Finns alike.  Whether it is a casual conversation with one of my co-workers or a chat with my wife, this topic seems to come up somewhat frequently.  Some people believe that "customer service" and "Finland" should not even be used in the same sentence because Finland doesn't have a clue about treating the customer while others might think that everything is fine and there are just some misunderstandings among expats living in Finland.  I am going to try to be neutral here, but based on observations and experiences that I have had while living here for 2.5 years, I would rate Finnish customer service a 3 on a scale of 1-10.  I would estimate that from my experiences I have had a pleasant customer experience approximately 30% of the time.  I guess it could be worse.  :)

I think the big debate here is: Are the Finns just rude and don't appreciate or give good customer service or is it just a cultural thing.  Perhaps they are not really intentionally trying to be rude, but it is a perception of outsiders used to a different level of service that their level comes across as rude.  I personally was shocked in regards to one experience I had after I had just arrived to the country.  I needed to change the car from summer tires to winter tires so I went to a local tire shop in order to do that.  First of all, when I asked the guy behind the desk if he spoke English, he said "no", but then spoke English anyways.  I noticed he said the same thing to every non-Finn who came to the shop looking for tires.  Sure, he might have wanted people to attempt Finnish, but rudely saying "No" to everyone who asked wasn't really a nice move.  Then later it came time to get my car as it came off the platform.  I tried to drive away, but the key did nothing.  Some message then came on the screen which referred to the electronic system.  Everything was fine before coming to the tire shop and now since they changed tires I cannot start my car. I asked for some help, but no one seemed like they cared or had the time to help.  Some guy turned the key a few times and finally after some minutes they just proceeded to push my car out of the garage into the yard without saying a word.  Now I was in the parking lot with a car that doesn't start and not sure how to handle it.  So, then I go talk to the manager who acts surprised but gives no help at all.  Almost like he just wanted the situation to go away.  I called my wife, who then attempted to call the place, however, they simply did not answer the call.  She finally got a manager of the entire chain on the line, who was apologetic but unable to help.  I went back to my car and after monkeying around with the engine for a while and having my wife search for technical solutions online from her office, the car finally started back up.  I took a deep sigh of relief and then raced over to pick up my son at school.  I think even Finns would admit that this was bad customer service.

I have already blogged in the past about numerous stories of frustration that my wife and I have had when dealing with Finnish banks.  I was rejected many times for simple credit cards and we were rejected by banks for loan applications.  Finally a good story to share when a very friendly and accommodating Finn at Danske Bank (formerly Sampo Pankki) helped us get a good rate and loan on our new home.   See my earlier blog article (2012) on "Do Finns trust foreigners" for more about this experience.   Also, in spite of my horror story at the car shop, we were finally able to find a friendly car repair shop in Espoo with a very friendly owner who normally accommodates our needs.  I just have to remember these pleasant situations and understand that there are indeed exceptions to the rule.

Another expat shared a story about how he offered to open the door for an older gentleman and after the man walked through the door and said nothing, my friend said "you're welcome".  The Finnish man then proceeded to say "Well, I never asked you to open the door for me" rudely and walked away.  :)  Hmm, it seems like many Finns just don't want the help, they want to "do it on their own".  Trust me, I know from experience myself that Finns are forever independent and proud and generally shy away from help.  They do not seem to want to owe anything to anyone.  I am still a bit torn over whether to chalk off these experiences and stories as rude and unacceptable behavior or just part of the culture that needs to be accepted when living in someone elses country.  I don't expect things to be just like in the States when living in Finland, but I do think some form of customer service should be practiced by Finns.  Sure, in the US we have much higher level of customer service and many people's livelihoods depend on the cash they receive from tips and such.  Still with that said, one should not feel entitled in their jobs just because they know they will not receive anything extra or lose their job because of it.  So, I actually do think that the Finns could learn a bit about customer service in the States and perhaps change their habits a bit to make their country a better place to live.   Sure, every culture is different and no country is perfect, but I think it is pretty safe to say that if there is something that the Finns can improve on, it is definitely customer service.

19 comments:

  1. Being form the US also and having lived here almost 15 years, I think it is a bit of both. Some of it is cultural and some of it is just unfortunately poor service. Try to remember the good times and hope they start to build up more. :)

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  2. Heather, Good to know. Has the customer service improved in your opinion? Have you truly gotten used to it?

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  3. ok, so im gonna admit, but customer service in norway flat out sucks. sucks terribly. BUT, on a positive note, after residing here for like three years, i can say that in oslo, its slowly getting better!!!

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  4. Well, much of it surely is cultural. I'm sure Americans love this "have a nice day" business, smiles and chit chat, but even as a cosmopolitan and quite chatty Finn I find it awfully intrusive, cringe making... Here the words are not as important as the tone of (very sparse) dialogue and the (rather subtle) expressions and body language. Also what comes across as a normal level of politeness in Finnish can absolutely sound absurdly rude in broken English. Another thing as regards the restaurants and bars is the living wage thing and not being dependent on tips. It can lead to rather, well, equal encounters in a very Nordic fashion. It sounds rather narrow minded and insular I guess, but I actually find Finnish style hands off customer service quite excellent. They won't come over as overly friendly in the American sense but there are many subtle things that can get lost in cultural translation and problems with language. It's just so comfortable not to be fussed with all the time...

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  5. Mark, Customer Service is actually much better than it was ten years ago if that helps. I've got some real horror stories too. Got to admit though, that I had some really good customer service at Veho with our Accord we brought from CA. They are a standout and always want to know if I'm happy with their service. Really bad service with a recent HP desktop computer, that I had to take back to Gigantti. And then I got some really good service and some horrible service. So in essence it's hit and miss, but better than ten years ago.

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  6. Stockholm slender made my point! As a Finn, I find American-Style customer service friendliness somehow fake, not genuine. What people say doesnt have much to do with what they really think. To me, its like a game: one SAS what he is supposed to say and the other responses what he is supposed to response.

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  7. Hei, nice blog!

    About this lack of customer service. Sure, some of it might be cultural but I'd be hesitant to make such wide a genralization. For example the behaviour of that elderly gentleman was just rude and idiotic. And I'd say it would've been described as such about everywhere in the world.

    But, sadly, you are quite right as well. Excellent customer service in Finland is unfortunately few and far between. It's not bad in the sense that people would try to rip you off. But very few people in customer service positions seem to want to genuinely solve your problems. Let alone go above and beyond to do so.

    For me, as a finn, most of the time it's tolerable. For example when shopping I'm often looking for something specific and don't even want to be pestered by the salesperson, because the chances are I actually know more of the thing I'm buying than he/she does.

    But there is one big exception. Restaurants. And here Finland truly sucks so bad. If you have first hand experience of restaurants in the US, the level of service you usually get in Finland is going to make you very, very sad. You pay double the price and don't get even half the service.


    Cheers,
    M

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  8. Hilarious. It is generally not a good idea to try to teach manners to finns.

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  9. Good blog!
    I've never been to the US so I can only compare Finnish customer service to other places in Europe.
    The level of service does vary from place to place in my opinion, but on average I do think it is lower than most places in Europe. However I don't think it's any worse to customer service in Sweden or Germany, and it's far better than what I've experienced in Estonia. It may be considered normal and acceptable behaviour for a Finn, so I can put that down as a cultural difference. But sometimes, as in the example of the old man in your post, a little common courtesy doesn't do any harm (It's not like the guy was offering the old man a loan!) . There is a lot to be gained by offering good customer service and I don't think Finnish business owners realise that. ....It doesn't cost anything either! :)

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  10. I appreciate everyone's comments on this blog article! There seem to be many different takes on what customer service should be and who does it better. I guess much of it has to do with what you are used to and the culture you grew up in. However with that said, I still feel that Finland could improve a bit. :)

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  11. Good blog post! As a Finn living in the US, I can definitely see where you are coming from and I have seen the Americans react to the service in Finland too. To comment on your tire changing issue, I think bad service is bad service in any country. There are always companies that don't know how to deal with issues/customers and this goes with any country. To me your example doesn't seem like a problem of Finnish culture, but a problem of that company.

    That being said, the customer service culture definitely is different from the US. And Finland definitely has some room for improvement, no doubt about that. But I have seen that sometimes foreigners tend to be almost offended, if the employee at a grocery store doesn't say much, but simply does their job. For a Finnish person that's normal. If I go to buy sliced ham, I am happy if the associate gives me that ham efficiently and I can go on with my day. While in the US I have to talk about the weather and what am I going to eat with the family for dinner etc. So to me, that's simply a cultural difference. I am still after 5 years adjusting to it. To me the question is, should I judge (not saying that you are, just saying in general) the way that they do things in this country? If something is different in this country, is it necessarily bad just because I am not used to it?

    I used to work at a busy grocery store and (even thought I am fairly chatty for a Finn) to me good customer service was that I was being as fast as possible, so that the customers wouldn't need to wait in lines for 15 minutes. Now I see the same kind of lines in Walmart and the associates are taking for ever as they are chatting with the customers and slowly packing the bags. I usually leave my wife to the line reading "People" and go walk around, because the line takes so long. My point with this story is that while people enjoy the chatting in this customer service situation, they would probably be fired (well maybe just being yelled at :)) if they worked in a Citymarket or Prisma. So from my perspective: Finland Customer service -> emphasis on efficiency and not making mistakes US customer service -> Emphasis on serving the customer and being friendly.

    But then again, I don't think I would say the customer service is necessarily better in one of these countries. Whatever you got used to, probably feels better for you. I'd say both countries could meet somewhere in the middle. Especially older people in Finland seem to have surprising problems even saying "Hello" to customers, but luckily these little things are getting better every day.

    btw. I am definitely guilty of "shying away from help. Not that I'm rude to someone helping me of course, but I've had several occasions when Americans have offered their help and I've said "no, thanks" just because I don't want to be a trouble to other people...

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    1. Hi,

      Thank you so much for the thoughtful comments! I actually agree with you in regards to what you said. It certainly has lots to do with the culture one grows up in and it is difficult to say that one is better than the other. It is a matter of opinion. However, I think another big factor is that people in Finland are not driven by company incentives and tips so they have no need to please the customer. In the United States, sometimes great service at a restaurant can make a big difference in the tip amount. Also, in Finland it is almost impossible to get fired at a job, so the motivation to please someone in a shop also might not be the same, where in US the boss will encourage the employee to be friendly and courteous because they might lose their job. Anyhow, great comments! Please feel free to read some of my other articles and leave your comments as I really appreciate it!

      Sincerely,

      Mark

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    2. Yeah, the tipping culture is definitely one of the main reasons why there is a difference. I have conflicted feelings about it though. Some of the places seem to really misuse it and have their pay rates below the minimum, because they consider the tip as part of the pay -> sometimes on slow days the waitress doesn't necessarily even make the minimum pay per hour.. Well, that's kind of off topic. The tipping culture, if used fairly is a good system, no doubt about that. The same goes with the job security thing, I feel bad for the waitresses here in the US, who have basically no job security. They can be fired for no apparent reason. Especially, if you are working part-time with no union on your side. But then again, if this "threat" is used for making sure the employees give outstanding customer service, it's hard to be upset about it as a customer.. After a bunch of leadership training though, I'd like to be naive and think there are better ways to go about it.

      But then again, the Finnish system do have a lot to improve. You shouldn't be able to do mediocre job just because you can't be fired.. I do think though that the stereotypical unfriendly Finnish customer service is little by little stepping aside. For some reason the babyboomer generation is much more introvert compared to the young people. So, I would guess ten years from now there won't be as big of a difference between these two countries.

      I mean, Kesko even has a guide line now that the sales people should always greet or at least acknowledge the customers when they walk by and the cashiers are supposed to finish say Have a good day/weekend when the customer leaves. Haha, that if anything seems weird in Finland!

      Anyway, thanks for a good blog post. I love reading about what Americans think about Finland, since I am experiencing these things in the other end. I'll have to take a look at your other posts too!

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  12. Absolutely a profound cultural difference. What we in the west think of in the west as "manners", "politeness", and "customer service" are all designed as a social lubricant to maintain pleasant relationships between people in social situations. This form of behavior is more pronounced in areas with high population density (think Japan), and areas with people of lots of cultural backgrounds ( North American cities). It is based upon not giving offence, and therefore has gestures, words, and behaviors that indicate inoffensiveness (Eye contact, greetings, smiling, polite phrasing). Up until one generation ago, Finland was entirely rural, the population was widely spread out, and in every village, every individual was known; you didn't have to indicate inoffensiveness; because if you were familiar, you were benign. Finland has a fairly homogeneous population, ( no need to adapt to different cultural behaviors), and on top of that, never experienced the class divisions of feudalism, where you had to avoid giving offence to higher classes. "Manners" as we think of them, did not evolve in the same way because they were not necessary. This is a topic that comes up a lot between me, every friend I have in Germany, (who are all very suspicious of Canadian politeness), and my Finnish spouse (who is beginning to see both sides of the equation). It is obviously possible to be rude in Finland (what a car story!), but lack of politeness is not rudeness, it's just the absence of an unnecessary social frill.

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    1. Jasmine, thank you for your very thoughtful comments! I think you have great points about the society in general and how certain behaviors are due to the geographical location, culture and population. It is not just about plain rudeness. Keep those great comments coming!

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  13. Moved her from the states. Customer service is just fine, but I'm also not high maintenance and don't expect people working their asses off to throw roses at my feet either.

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  14. Really the blogging is spreading its wings rapidly. Your write up is a fine example of it. 24 hour truck tire repair

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  15. I have lived in Finland since one year. I come from Germany and of course, there can be bad customer service in every country. BUT: I am so disappointed and even sometimes shocked about the bad attitude here towards customers! I have had very bad experiences in banks, shops, with the internet provider, and so on. My foreign colleagues are also disappointed because of many impolite Finns. They do not seem to care at all what impression people get from their country :(

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  16. P.S.: I am always friendly with people, I have learned the Finnish language, and I was so enthusiastic about getting to know the culture. But now, my enthusiasm stopped since I am fed up with the rude behaviour.

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