“Understanding the market and customer needs is crucial. Norwegians are often felt to have weaknesses in this regard,” says Export Credit Norway’s Director of Strategy and Business Development, Ivar Slengesol.
His workday frequently involves dialogue with Norwegian businesses seeking to market their products and solutions internationally. While Slengesol is a strong supporter and promoter of Norwegian exporters, he also points out that a report by Innovation Norway evidence room for improvement among Norwegian businesses.
Preconceptions about Norwegians
“The report is titled, “Strong on product, weak on marketing”. Norwegians are felt to be good at innovation, inclusive management and quality, but feedback indicates that they also have considerable room for improvement with regard to customer contact and cultural understanding,” says Slengesol.
In the report, Innovation Norway surveyed and received input from 227 persons working in 17 of the world’s most important export markets. While much of the feedback was positive, Norwegians were described as arrogant and distant.
“This feedback is of course general, but Norwegians should nevertheless be aware that they may encounter biased views when meeting potential international customers,” says Slengesol.
Areas in which Norway has a strong reputation
Slengesol emphasises that Norwegian businesses have a very good reputation in numerous areas. As well as performing strongly on innovation, management and quality, Norwegians are considered to be honest, correct and opposed to corruption.
The generally high cost of Norwegian products is a common challenge. When combined with a lack of flexibility in meeting customer needs, this may lead customers to choose a product from another country.
“What can Norwegian exporters do to improve?”
“I would compare this to personal development. If you want to develop as a person, you have to take stock and identify your strengths and weaknesses. This allows you to develop your strengths further and address your weaknesses. Norwegian businesses should ask themselves, ‘Do we have a sufficiently strong understanding of the negotiating culture when meeting foreign customers?’,” says Slengesol, and adds some specific advice:
- Be humble and make an effort to understand customer needs.
- Be open to adapting products/solutions to match customer needs.
- Show interest in the local culture and social conventions.
Slengesol identifies Latin America, South-East Asia and Africa as typical high-context regions, i.e. areas in which strong emphasis is typically given not only to message content, but also to the form and context of communications. Age, rank, social status, gender roles, mood, etc. all play an important role. Negotiations with customers and partners in these regions usually take longer, and people prioritise the development of a personal relationship before engaging in negotiations.
Cultural differences are a barrier
In contrast, Norway is perhaps the world’s most typical low-context culture, with far greater emphasis being given to verbal statements. The parties mean what they say, get to the point quickly and are focused on the wording of the agreement.
“Although exports are increasing, the proportion of Norwegian exports destined for growth markets, particularly in eastern Asia, remains relatively small. The countries in this region are home to high-context cultures, and cultural differences are a barrier to export growth,” says Slengesol.
“Understanding the target market is extremely important. This is one of the reasons why I encourage more Norwegians to study abroad. International exchanges are excellent learning opportunities. When I first moved abroad to study in South Carolina in the US, I experienced culture shock due to the entirely different mind-set there. It is vital to recognise that countries have different ‘dos and don’ts’, and to prepare for these before launching sales initiatives.”
These are the sources you should check
Slengesol also highlights a number of helpful resources.
The World Bank “Doing Business” report contains an overview of how long it is likely to take to complete a transaction in different countries.
Transparency International provides an overview of corruption perception in different countries.
“At Export Credit Norway, we have experience of working in many countries, and have considerable knowledge, input and guidance to share. Please contact us for advice, particularly in relation to financing. Innovation Norway and the Norwegian Foreign Service also have extensive resources, and people on the ground in numerous countries. Chambers of commerce such as the Norwegian-German Chamber of Commerce can also help improve cultural understanding and assist with network-building,” says Slengesol.