Sunday, March 08, 2009

Salespeople in Sweden – A Paradox of Swedishness

I have complained before about customer service in Sweden. How when I walk into a store I have to actively search for someone if I want help finding a product. How I am very seldom approached by anyone. Sometimes, it is amazing. Sometimes wandering around and finding what I want for myself is just what I need. Sometimes it drives me crazy.

Of all of the stores I have been in since moving here, the only stores I ever walk into and am immediately paid attention to are the cell phone stores. They assault you. Sometimes I walk into one of those stores just to be reminded of what some semblance of customer service is like. But they are alone in their eagerness to sell.

It turns out, that this is a bit of a phenomenon seen throughout the sales industry. Especially in Sweden. A recent article briefly summarizes a couple of studies here: New Research: Sweden's Salespeople Too Hesitant?

While the whole idea of hesitant salespeople is quite the paradox, some of the numbers really stood out. And so, in a blatant act of large scale quotations I give you the following from the PR Newswire:

· “In social situations, 25% of Swedish salespeople wait for others to initiate conversation first.
· Currently, 12% of Swedish salespeople would rather be working in a procedural profession like research and development, not sales or marketing.
· 11% of Swedish salespeople are not comfortable using the telephone to contact prospective buyers.
· In Sweden, the number of contact reluctant salespeople is steadily growing. It was 6.7% in 2001, 7.1% in 2003, 8.4% in 2004 and 9.4% in 2008.”

I’ve been in Sweden for about 20 months now. Suddenly, all those wasted hours in stores looking for help, for a salesperson, make sense. Swedish people fear social interaction. And it seems like it is getting worse. Last year nearly 10% of salespeople didn’t want to talk with you. They are paid to make sales, but are afraid to initiate any sort of interaction. Or reluctant as the quote above says.

One quarter of them don’t want to initiate conversation. What do they do during their working hours then? Hide in corners? Twelve percent don’t want to be working in sales. Which, considering that they are afraid to talk with anyone or actually do what they have been hired to do shouldn’t be all that surprising.

I have been suckered into some sales stuff in previous jobs. And I am a horrible salesperson. Bad. Some people can sell ice to Eskimos. I can’t sell ice to a drowning polar bear. But I’m ok with that. Not the drowning polar bear, but just that I’m not a good salesperson. And that is why I don’t apply for sales jobs. It’s really quite simple.

But this all seems very Swedish. It all seems to tie in with the silence on the buses. The stereotypical shyness of the average Swede. The neutrality and avoidance of anything that can be seen as aggression. Even just a simple sales pitch in the confines of a store. It is Swedishness spilled over into the workforce. Although, it doesn’t seem to be just Sweden. Some of Sweden’s neighbors are even worse.

Also mentioned in the summary is the following: “That study produced a surprising paradox: A number of people now working in sales who don't want to talk to anyone. How many? ‘7-9% of the salespeople in Sweden, 20% in Norway and a larger percent in Finland,’ Bryant estimates.”

Seven to nine percent in Sweden. Twenty percent in Norway. Even more in Finland. Not just hesitant to initiate, but downright don’t want to talk to you. The Nordic countries seem to have some issues with social interaction that need to be worked out.

Welcome to Sweden. And the Nordic countries. And salespeople who fear the customer.

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  1. Sums up Sweden: In social situations, 25% of Swedish salespeople wait for others to initiate conversation first.

    That is amazing! People who get paid to sell stuff wait for you to talk to them. Swedish interactions should be conducted between screens or little movable walls to make them slight more comfortable.

    And even when you do speak to a salesperson, they are quite apathetic and annoyed. I usually wander around aimlessly until I find what I need.

  2. it seems like you are getting a lot more anoyid obout sweden in your last posts. homesick? btw great blog :)

  3. Floridian in FinlandMarch 8, 2009 at 10:17 AM

    I think the smaller shops are more customer friendly than the corporate retail stores. And frankly, I find the restaurant service more annoying than the retail service.

    However, Finns also don't complain, so I've been emailing certain places to voice my opinion after extreme circumstances (e.g. posting a sign that says 'beware of the slippery floor' does not prevent a customer from slipping). Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but at least I'm not going down without a fight.

  4. I prefer to be the one asking the questions in a store rather than be forced into making a decision before I've had a chance to look and think. If I'm attacked with questions before I'm ready for it, I usually leave the store.

    On the other hand, when I do ask, it's nice to talk to someone who knows more about the stuff they are selling than I do. Here in Canada that's often a problem, the staff especially in the bigger stores are totally clueless. What's particularly annoying is that they don't know how to say "I don't know" which very quickly leads to totally absurd conversations.

    Whatever else you may say about Swedish people, we're very good at saying "I don't know" when we don't know.

  5. The salespeople are afraid because people really don't wanna get interrupted without reason (customers asking by themselves WHEN they need help is a much more civilized way).

    We Nordic people has got used to a level of serenity the rest of the world never have tried. And if you don't know, it's hard to understand. I'm glad that I think it is a smaller problem to ask by myself than getting interrupted.

    In Sweden you can choose to be private in public. In USA you'll get interrupted more. In the third world you'll get interrupted even more.

  6. Don't you love these studies that get released here in Scandinavia? Its all about transparency and accountability, and to keep us all vigilant.
    I can honestly say that i appreciate that i am not asaulted here in Swedish retail stores. I am more relaxed, and especially in smaller stores i do not feel rushed. A great thing about my experience of Swedish retail workers is that when you do ask for help they are fantastically nice.
    I agree with another poster in that you do sound more times frustrated with Sweden.

  7. It must be a lot more pleasant buying a new car in Sweden than in the US.

  8. I don't like getting assaulted by sales people. If you assault me, you won't make a sale; as simple as that. On the other hand, people in small stores - people that own their own business - tend to be a lot more skilled at sensing the mood of the customer. I want to be able to browse the store myself, but I also want the sales people to be able to pick up on my body language and see when I want their assistance.

    @Hairy - I seem to remember you saying that you're in sports marketing - if that's not in some way related to sales - what does it entail exactly?

  9. most people don't want to be assaulted by sales people. it's as simple as that. they want to take their time and look around without someone pressuring them into buying stuff. that is probably why sales people are reluctant when it comes to approaching people... they know that if they are too aggressive, they are just scaring the customers away. it's all about sensing the mood of the customer and picking up on the body languages if they want to be approached or not, just like jacob m said.

  10. The best of both worlds: Sales people who are present and ready, if needed.

    Here's a big tip for when they aswer your question with, "I don't know" as the answer: "Oh, okay...I'll go ahead and wait while you find out." But you must say it kindly and with a smile. It teaches them what they don't yet a way that they'll appreciate.

  11. I don't know what would have influenced it--my charmingly simple swedish vocabulary, my american-ness, whatever--but the last time I was in Sweden I got amazing retail help, at least concerning clothing stores. The first instance was finding a suit that fit at Zara. One location had the right size jacket, but not pants. The sales associate called all the other stores for me to track down a matching set of pants that fit. It took him just under an hour, and then he figured out a way for me to get a discount on the purchase to boot. The second was shoe shopping, where an earlier purchase at Din Sko had been defective. By the time I tried to return it, they were out of that style at that location, but instead of making me go to the other location the sales girl had one of their backstock people bring them over for me to pick up there within an hour. She told me about a really great (i.e. cheap) dagens ratt around the corner, and when I was done with lunch I would have my shoes. It was impressive really. The thing is, Hairy has both American charms and boyish good looks. I can't figure out what he's doing wrong.

  12. Haha! Dagens ratt! If Expressen had it, it would be the equivalent of Ekstrabladets siden 9 pige.

  13. Interesting topic again! Yes, Finns are even worse in that sense, if you think that sellers should be more active. Personally, I'd like to browse on my own, in peace and quiet. If I don't find what I'm looking for, I make an eye contact to a salesperson and he/she knows to approach me.

    In certain shops, e.g. one hardware store in Nokia, salesmen basically run away from you. That's annoying, especially because they change the places of their stuff they sell ever so often. You simply won't find anything there.

    But it's plain to see that in shops they sell expensive stuff, the service is much better. Kind of included in the price. Whereas in a food store it's not that good service; hell, everybody buys food anyway so why bother..?

    I find myself to be a soul mate for Hairy when it comes to be a salesperson. I did a stint in a shop as a salesman. I sucked, big time. Also sold something from door to door. Actually, tried to sell :)

  14. @sapphire – I agree. It is pretty amazing. And youre also right about their attitude when you finally do get ahold of them. As if they had something better to do.

    @anonymous – I actually quite like Sweden. But the annoying stuff is often the stuff that is so different than what I am used to in the US. Plus, the annoying stuff often ends up being the funny stuff.

    That being said, sometimes Sweden annoys and frustrates the hell out of me.

    @Floridian – That’s a good point. Smaller shops do tend to be a bit better when it comes to service. Maybe because there are less places for them to hide.

    @Anonymous – That’s a good point. Really though, I’m quite ok with someone coming up and simply asking if I need any help with anything. Because more often than not, I do need help with something.

    I haven’t had much experience with people not knowing what they are talking about. But I haven’t really been making any big technical purchases that actually need a lot of questions answered. Usually I just want to know where I can find a certain kind of lightbulb or something to that extent.

    @Daniel – That’s the thing though, when someone asks me if I need any help, very seldom do I feel like Im being interrupted.

    But I think youre on to something about what people in the Nordic have gotten used to.

    @Anonymous – Maybe it is just something that fits the Swedish personality then.

    Sometimes I am very frustrated with Sweden. Its true. But I also quite like it.

    @Christina – Hmmm, I wonder how that works actually. Anyone have any experience with serious car buying in this country?

    Jacob M – Youre absolutely right about the body language. But what was so interesting is that 25% of the sales people in that study didn’t want to initiate conversation. Meaning that even if they did correctly read your body language, they still wouldn’t come up and talk to you. And that just seems ridiculous to me.

    That’s the beauty of marketing though, you don’t really have to make those actual sales pitches. Its kind of the step of convincing people they should buy the stuff without actually making sure they do. Very sneaky like that.

    @maria – again though, the Swedish salespeople won’t initiate. So they might be able to sense that body language and still not do anything. And 7-9% of them don’t want to talk to anyone at all. Regardless of body language and initiation.

    @Isle – ooh that is a good way to get the information you need in a nice way. I like it.

    @the good doctor – that’s true. Maybe you just have more of it. Or maybe you were wearing the right cologne to get things done.

    But, its good to know that there is quality customer service sometimes.

    @Anoynmous – hmmm…

    @smek – I think it’s the running away thing that gets me the most. Because Ive experience that quite a bit. And that is incredibly frustrating.

    And the sales stuff… man. Its rough sometimes isn’t it?

  15. I cant say i have a oppinion. But there is, and especially in malmö, alot of immigrants who has one. Sweden is a country of 9 million anyway, 10000 is hardly anything. But they are the ones who always show.

  16. Nice :) wrong thread

  17. I think the simple thing is research marketing. Survey them. If Swedes get so damned uncomfortable when interacting with strangers, maybe they buy more shit when you leave them alone. Talk to them and they may get scared, tuck tail and run out of the store. Thus purchasing less. If you're not sure which would be the better sales method, just survey the people or do a study where you see who bought more - people who were talked to or those who were left alone... I do think it is weird how they don't interact at stores but I wonder if the "real" Swedish people need that. Personally, I just feel like I am on my own more.

  18. Also, I have to say the the tip culture of the US has a lot to do with it. I waited tables/bartended all through college and learned fast that the nicer I am and the harder I try to sell stuff, the more money I earn because I was paid in tips. That seriously influences our whole sales/service culture. People are used to getting their asses kissed at a restaurant or anywhere else that they are required to tip, and so, in all customer service situations it has become expected to get a lot of attention. And to get your ass kissed. I am convinced tipping leads to better customer service in society.

  19. @anonymous – a good comment. And a good point. And no worries that it was the wrong thread.

    @m8surf – that’s very true. Give the people what they want. But Im still confused by the idea that people who are salespeople don’t want to sell.

    I think youre absolutely right about the tip culture. It makes a huge difference. A little economic incentive never hurt.

  20. In you need someone to sucker you into buying the thing, did you really need it? It seems we are going into a time where we are focusing more on selling crap then making things that are actually useful and works.

  21. a fair point. but doesnt it seem odd to you that people who have decided to apply for jobs as salespeople, who have been hired as salespoeple, who are paid as salepeople, don't actually want to try to sell things?

  22. It's not much of an issue for me. I like being left alone when shopping. If I need help I will go and ask someone. I've never had problems with bad customer service.

  23. thats good to hear. Ive struggled plenty of times trying to find someone to help me. especially inthe bigger stores.

  24. This is definitely one of those it's relative issues. The US is known for having serious customer service. Europeans probably think their customer service is fine, but to Americans it sucks. I feel that all over Europe, actually Sweden is one of the best in my opinion. Southern Europe is ridiculous to me. I feel like in, say Italy, I could hold 100 Euros in the air and scream I want to by something and still no one would even look at me. Let alone, gasp, smile at me.

  25. @m8surf - you're right, this probably is very relative. And youre right about Italy. ASctually, Italy is the place Ive had the worst customer service. But Ive had great customer service in Spain and Greece. So maybe its not southern Europe but just Italy.

  26. I completely hate when American sales people jump in front of me and ask me so many darn questions. If I need help I can ask and I always feel I am stupid when I say "I'm just looking" when I don't know what I want to buy.

  27. thats fair enough. so do I.

    I still find it fascinating though that someone would work as a salesperson who is afraid to talk with a potential customer. and afraid to initiate conversation.

    and saying youre just looking is an excellent answer. it is what youre doing if you dont know what you want to buy and youre just looking. for some people that is what shopping is all about.

  28. Hey, um, perhaps I'm a bit late in this thread but anyway...perhaps some of those people just took the job cause they couldn't find or get anything else.

    I mean you don't really need much qualifications to be a seller and the way swedish people are it's quite hard to find really ourgoing and good sellers. So stores perhaps settles with these people in lack of anything better. Besides the high amount of unemployment might play in.

    Many people also get stucked in arbetsförmedlingen and a-kassan, Now when you have that you kinda need to search almost any job you can find.

    You also can't really turn down a job if you haven't got the most excellent of reasons for you not to take the job, which I think most people don't. This I think is a common reason for why people who don't really belong in a branch can be found there anyway quite regularly in Sweden.

  29. that is a good point. especially with the arbetsförmedling. they don't exactly give you a lot of choice.

    I suppose from an employers perspective it confuses me though. Is there really such a lack of people wanting to be salespeople that they settle for just anyone they can get?

  30. Really like the blog! I am a Swede living in LA, CA with my Swedish husband. In less than 10 weeks i´ll give birth to "our little American".
    Planning to move back to Stockholm in a year, and I´m pretty sure that I´ll be super annoyed by ignorant sales people...I´ll sure miss having my grocery bags packed for me at the supermarket...

  31. glad to hear it! you probably will go through a bit of culture shock heading back. Im definitely expecting culture sock when I finally head back to the US.

    But Im so glad that you brought up the bagging of groceries... I can't believe I have failed to mention that! That is a nice added benefit of being in the US sometimes. Its the little things really.

  32. I'm butting in again, sorry, but this frustrates me a little; you're forgetting the general Swedish character. It's not just the sales people, but *everyone*. If they were more forwarf, they'd be considered rude and pushy, intrusive even.

  33. butting in is good.

    youre absolutely right, thats why I mentioned the stereotypical shyness of the average Swede. It comes from both the sales person side, but also the customer who might be looking for somethig but is too afraid to ask.

    It still boggles my mind though that the number was so extreme.