I have been asked a number of times over the past 18 months by a large London-based “cultural awareness” consultancy to work with large global companies who are considering working in the Baltics. These companies are in discussions with potential Baltic partners, and have become so frustrated with the attitude displayed to them that they are considering walking away.
Being global companies with a global perspective and resources, of course they recognize that the issues may be cultural, and want to understand these problems and find a way through them. This has led to many smaller companies from across Europe to decide working with the Balts is just too difficult and walked away from possible deals.
Had the multinational approached a similar company in the UK, the red carpet would have been rolled out. Not so in the Baltics.
The company I was with last week was a large global player, who had identified a Baltic company with the skill set they needed for a major piece of product development work. The potential order is massive, equivalent to the entire annual turnover of the Baltic company.
Had the multinational approached a similar company in the UK, the red carpet would have been rolled out. Not so in the Baltics. Initially the response was slow; then, once the global company had committed to flying out, a meeting was arranged at which the two representatives from the UK were faced across the table by 15 staff from the local business. Only two seemed to be allowed to speak, and none were allowed to smile.
When the international company’s representative reasonably sought some comfort around the Baltic company’s abilities to deliver in certain areas, his counterpart boss got to his feet, shouted angrily in the local language, and left the room chased by a number of others.
Since then, communication has continued in a similar vein, with the Balts refusing to come to the UK until Purchase Order numbers were issued. Then, contract amounts, which had been negotiated and agreed verbally, mysteriously changed when written contracts arrived. All in all it has not been an auspicious beginning to what could and should be a massive order and an important relationship for the local company.
As the project director said to me, “I have worked all around the world, and I have to say working with this company has been one of the most challenging experiences I have had; they seem to adopt a hostile attitude from day one, which is strange, as I am trying to spend millions of pounds with them. I have been accused of lying, spying and wanting to steal.”
This may be an extreme example, but as someone who has been brokering business deals between Baltic and UK companies for the past 11 years, I have to acknowledge that this type of attitude is not unusual. To be frank, Balts can be guilty of a certain arrogance in business dealings which makes them difficult to deal with. This arrogance may be a result of lack of confidence, and a belief that you can’t do any deal without having a fight beforehand. To us “soft” Westerners it can be a little off-putting.
There do seem to be two default attitudes adopted by some Baltic companies when it comes to working internationally. If working with a company looking to work in the local market, the Baltic company will assume that the foreign company is there to take advantage of them, and steal their ideas. If it is a Baltic company looking to export to a Western European market, the Baltic company will assume that all Westerners are rich and stupid, and will price accordingly.
I believe both these attitudes are causing real harm to the development of international business in the Baltics, and that it is important for Baltic companies to think a little more about the culture of the company or country they are looking to work with, and to placate the sensibilities of their potential customers.
In the UK we have a saying that “the customer is always right;” in the Baltics it can sometimes seem that the saying is the “the customer is trying to rip me off.”
Of course, the issues highlighted here are not general; there are many excellent Baltic businesses run by young Balts who understand business in the West and have adapted completely, and in the end these old fashioned attitudes will die out. But I worry about the jobs and opportunities lost in the meantime.
Charles Cormack is CEO of Cormack Consultancy Baltic (www.ccbaltic.eu)