Customer care in Finland

Customer care in Finland

Once again I bring up the subject which, for this purpose, I have called «Customer Care». Who is to say what is right and what is wrong in customer care? Who can say that one country’s service is better than another’s? However, what I can say is that many foreigners» impressions of the Finns are based on their interpretation of the service they receive; especially if they do not have the opportunity to meet some Finns on a one-to-one basis. To many, the Finns seem abrupt, rude, grumpy and uncaring. This greatly saddens me because I know they are not.

Remember, the Finns will only give minimal information to any question you ask. Therefore, it is important to get the question right in the first place. For example, last week I was at Helsinki airport being served at the Finnair desk on the international side, when two Japanese ladies came up and asked, «Is there a bank?” Without looking at the two questions, the Finnish receptionist said, «No. Not on this side”. The abruptness of the answer caused the Japanese ladies to stop in their tracks.

They clearly expected an additional response. When that was not forthcoming, they eventually moved away. When I had been served, I sought out the two ladies and asked whether they were looking for somewhere to change money or an actual bank. Of course, they were looking for a Bureau de Change and I explained where it was. There are two points to consider here. First, the Finn answered the question and no more. It is not in their culture to expand upon the obvious.

There is no thought as to what the «customer» really wants, no ability to look beyond the question to see what the problem is or the question should be, and there is no responsibility to find a solution. It appears that the Finns are quite unable to use their initiative in this respect. This is really not the case, but «going beyond the call of duty» is just not expected of them in their environment. The second point to consider is the lack of eye contact.

Eye contact, especially with strangers, is kept to a minimum. One Australian I happened to meet on his first visit to Finland was almost pulling his hair out at the treatment he was getting from a girl behind the airline desk. She was clearly telling him that he could not board the plane but kept averting her eyes from his. Whatever he said, she just repeated the same message like a stuck gramophone record, and continued the same averting of eyes.

He was becoming very agitated and in desperation exclaimed so the whole room could hear him, «It’s almost as though I weren’t here. Why won’t you look at me?” It was obvious the girl behind the airline desk was getting distressed. After all, she would be used to the Finns obeying the rules and just going away and not making a fuss.

Served by Grumpy

Buying a pizza in a restaurant: «I glanced up from the menu to see a grim-faced waitress, whom I»ll call Grumpy, standing by our table… our pizzas arrived…when I noticed something disturbing: three sharp pieces of mussel shell were staring at me…I was appalled and expected an apology, a new pizza, a complimentary bottle of champagne and, of course, no charge. When I showed Grumpy the pieces of shell, she just shrugged her shoulders, reluctantly changed the pizza for something else, and offered me free coffee for my inconvenience. Then she had the nerve to charge me full price on the bill. I was angry. Ready to complain to the manager …but Pekka didn’t want me to make a fuss. He asked me to keep silent about the matter. «We may want to come here again,” he said.» —Russell Snyder

(The Optimist’s Guide to Finland for Business People, 2003)

Another similar incident I witnessed happened to an Englishman in a supermarket. At the cash desk, he asked whether the shop took VISA. The answer came back, «No”. Unfortunately, we then had to wait at the till until the man found enough cash to pay for his items. Actually, the shop took other forms of credit cards and debit cards but not VISA. If the girl behind the counter could not speak English well, she could have pointed out the symbols/logos of the cards they took. But whether she spoke English or not, she was not going to go beyond the obvious question. Her responsibility ended with the answer, «No”.

One evening, my Finnish colleague Timo and I were dining out. We both wanted just a light evening meal and decided to stop at a branch of a restaurant chain. He just wanted a plain omelette and ordered it from the waitress, who showed some anxiety about this. After some while, she returned to say that they were unable to cook an omelette because it was not on the menu. We left.

One client travels the world as customer service manager for a Finnish owned multi-national company. He said, for the first edition of this book, that he is appalled at the service levels in his country and was often making comparisons with the Far East and America. He exclaimed, «We put up with anything. We never complain!” He believes that the quality in Finland is perfect but they can’t organise service, whilst in Asia they can organise service but the quality is dreadful.

In a recent conversation, Timo H. updated his views by saying that service levels have transformed in Helsinki due to more international travel, competition and exposure to other cultures. Helsinki has become more cosmopolitan. He believes that people are starting to become more assertive in what they want and how they want to be treated, which he sees as a good thing. Having returned to Finland last year after living in the States for a few years, he noticed a vast difference from when he left.

A Finnish Barber
A foreigners experience in Finland, from Rob J: «My first visit to a Finnish barber made me nervous. Will they cut too much off and understand me? However, nothing prepared me for what actually happened. He had almost finished, when I asked if he could style my hair with some gel. He replied in English, “Can you do it? I don’t want to make my hands sticky.”