Martin Williams has been working with foreign companies in the UK for over 30 years. His company European Business Solutions (EBS), which provides administrative and operational support to businesses setting up in the UK, has helped over 600 businesses to successfully grow in the British market. EBS is also a founding partner of UK Market Access Program, working in cooperation with University of Warwick Science Park and UK Trade and Investment.
Many Nordic people visiting the UK for business underestimate some of the small differences between the commercial cultures. I have been working exclusively with foreign-owned companies setting up in and trading with the UK for over 20 years, and have considerable experience with all the Nordic and Baltic countries. Whilst any differences may appear small at first, an understanding of these things can make all the difference between a profitable outcome, and a poor one.
We must remember that the British are an island nation which has had secure borders which have not been invaded for nearly 1000 years, and they are sitting in the one of the largest economy in the world. That said, the British are open to new opportunities, and are always polite and welcoming. Perhaps they are too polite, as they do not like to upset their visitors and they can take great pride in a complex use of their language so that really only locals can appreciate the real meaning.
Finns are direct and efficient in their business activities, and the relationship between the two companies involved in a negotiation is more important than the relationship between the people. In contrast, the British put much more emphasis on people relationships; they want to like the person they are dealing with, and they put more trust in personal relationships than they do corporate ones. So the British will start a meeting with “small talk”. This is not to waste time, it is to try to find out something about you; can they find any common ground or common interests. It is a mistake to try to avoid this process, as the British will keep coming back to it until they are satisfied.
Also, do not plan on every meeting taking one hour. If the Brits are interested, they will often decide to allow more time, perhaps invite you on a tour of the factory or something similar. This is always a good sign, so whilst Finns may think it inefficient to leave extra time between meetings in their schedule, it is often beneficial to do so.
Many expressions in English have a hidden meaning, and it is good to know that this can happen and to be able to understand at least some of them. It is also helpful to listen for what was not said, as this can often tell you more than what actually was said.
As in all countries there are some subjects which are best avoided. Religion is probably the most obvious, for although it has a diminishing significance in the ordinary lives of most people there are still areas, particularly Northern Ireland, Liverpool and Glasgow, where religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants can still lie just below the surface, and are best not disturbed.
The British are generally a private race and would never discuss anything to do with salary, or employment prospects, even amongst close friends.
However, as Finns you have one big advantage over the British; The Finnish Silence. You are quite content to sit quietly and say nothing if there is nothing to be said; The British, on the other hand, really do not like silences, and try to fill them. Use this to your advantage, as during a silent period they will probable say something they did not intend to tell you about the company or the negotiations, and it will be to your advantage to know this.
I hope I have not discouraged you with this. The British are generally honest in business, and there is a lot of business in a country of 65 million people with such a large economy. They like and respect Finnish people and Finnish products are considered to be high quality, so you are starting from a good place.