MOSCOW BLOG: Why do many Russians struggle in sales?

By bne IntelliNews September 10, 2015

Nick Rees in Moscow -


Over the years that I’ve been running sales teams in Russia (ranging from from teams of five up to larger teams of over 200 people), I’ve often had discussions about how to make my staff more like the natural sales “specialists” that we see in the Western world.

I’m not talking about sales “sharks” who would sell their granny to make some commission, but people who think before they speak and then ask the right question in order to get the answer they want.

When I originally came to Russia over 20 years ago, I thought it was a lack of exposure to sales environments, lack of experience, lack of training, but definitely not a lack of ability. We also have to remember that the parents of most of the 20-30 year olds in Russia came from “Soviet” backgrounds where selling was never a necessity. Who needs a sales person when you have a five-year waiting list just to buy a Lada, as they did even as recently as 10 years ago? We often inherit the mentality and skills of our parents, so in this case there were no sales skills to inherit.

Not only have I worked with thousands of Russian “sales” people, but also I’ve interviewed thousands more and the majority of these interviews have been for sales roles. Firstly, as many expats who’ve worked in Russia a long time will tell you, Russians don’t sell themselves very well. In the UK or US for example, you would expect the “bullshitometer” to be at maximum as candidates brag about succeeding at things they had never even done. Westerners tend to think: “I’ll say or do whatever I need to in order to impress”. It’s so different here, but still, let’s not confuse bullshit with the ability to sell. In interviews, Russians focus on facts and rarely let emotion get the better of them - the total opposite of what I would expect in the West and I actually don't see that as a bad thing. You just have to understand the cultural differences and manage your own expectations.

There are so many reasons for Russians, in general, to struggle in sales. I’ve listed a few of the obvious ones above, but one of the main reasons, in my opinion, is that their language works against them for a start. Brits and Americans would think nothing of saying “so, you would like to take that, yes?”

A Russian person would be far more comfortable saying “you don’t want it, no?”. The negative version of the close is nearly always the most comfortable in Russia – it’s just the way it is.

I’ve lost count of the number of times when I have whispered to someone, during a phone conversation they were having, to ask something like “can they meet us tomorrow, yes?” but then listened to the more natural version “you can’t meet with us tomorrow, no?” being asked. It might sound strange to some, but it is a more natural way for a Russian to ask. Not always, of course, but very often.

That negative question might actually be asked in a slightly positive way, with an accent on the “no” at the end creating a positive suggestive version of the word, but from my experience in sales, if you give some people the chance to say no, they will take it. 

Before I get lots of Russian people smashing out words on their keyboard, this is not a criticism – it’s an observation and one I’ve discussed with many native Russian speakers. This isn’t about intelligence either – Russians are some of the most intelligent and well-educated people that I’ve ever met.

Of course, there are some extremely talented salespeople in Russia – I’ve worked with many who learn to get around these barriers and use it to their advantage, simply by asking different questions, but in general the sales tactics and approach are a lot softer here. 

In the UK, for example, the average English person working in sales at the age of 23 or 24 has about five years' sales experience. Because the Russian education system is the way it is, and the focus on graduation an important part of life for the individual and his/her close friends and family, most of my staff have only just come out of university at that age. Their sales experience is zero.

Instead of having someone with five years working in sales companies, known for strong and regular sales training courses and “on-the-job" training from an experienced manager, we get someone who might have had a part-time job in a shop, bar or restaurant to supplement their income whilst studying. It creates a different kind of person entirely. Don’t forget that a sales person working in a shop here generally sits in the corner and is there to assist you if you need a different size or colour – they’re not there to harass you and force you to buy something you don’t want or don’t like…..thankfully!

The US, UK and many parts of Europe (except the eastern part) have had decades of growth in extremely mature markets. Competition in most markets is fierce and only the best survive. That’s the way it’s been for generations but Russia’s only been an open market since the early 1990s. We’re also now on our third “crisis” since the early 1990s too, so almost half of the time Russia has been in a period of neutral or negative growth.

I’ve looked at so many ways of trying to mould my staff into a slightly different type of sales people – for example, with one particular group I wrote scripts for them to learn and learn and learn. I wanted to see if they would eventually, just by the habit of repetition, ask the right question in the right way. It worked for some, but not for most.

I’ve also worked with women who think being pretty is enough to charm a client to work with them, and sometimes it is. I was once told during a sales training day: “I know what clothes to wear – what I say will be irrelevant”. 

Knowing what I had learned about the lack of natural sales skills, I tried to focus another group on being more relationship-led with their clients. We didn’t focus on the sale of the product, but the "sale" of the person selling it and the personality of the person buying it. I encouraged them to take their clients to fancy dinners, wonderful theatres, exciting sporting events, lunches or suchlike. Every cost would have been expensed and I would always lend money if someone was feeling a little short of money, so there were no excuses. 

“What 25-30 year old wouldn’t want to get a free dinner in one of the top restaurants in Moscow or an evening at the Bolshoi Theatre?” I thought. Again, I was wrong. Over two or three years, I could count on one hand how many times I signed expenses for this sort of entertainment. Usually the expense request was handed to me with a “what a great evening – we had such a great time and I learned so much about him/her”, which gave me encouragement, but not a lot more than that. 

As many will agree, business in Russia is mainly transactional and extremely bureaucratic, which can be very boring and extremely frustrating at times. Not many clients want to know you personally or care whether your holiday was good or a total washout. Trying to break down that barrier is probably the most important thing in Russian business and something that I’ve really adapted myself to over the years. I didn’t even realise I was doing it, if I’m honest.

Some two-hour meetings were all talk about weather, their holidays, their family, their job, their likes (or dislikes), football or tennis... and then we would cram in 10 minutes at the end to talk about business. It usually worked and is actually a far more enjoyable way of conducting a meeting than trying to think of crafty ways of closing the client.

Probably the best sales people I’ve seen have come from FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) backgrounds. Over a period of years, they’re taught how to listen, how to think, how to structure their meeting and how to build relationships in a very short period of time. Salaries at entry level are generally low, but the investment in sales training is incredible. I’m not talking about throwing someone into a room once or twice a year and cramming them with info that they will forget, but ongoing, day-to-day training on-the-job by experienced sales management. This is one of the few and possibly the best ways to teach a sales-force how to sell, but you have to be prepared to cull the ones who simply just won’t understand where you’re coming from.

As Russia moves forward and markets become more and more saturated and competition more fierce, employers will start to realise the importance of sales training as a huge part of a manager’s job, not just the Learning & Development team.

There are some great international and Russian companies that are getting it right, but the amount of companies that simply try to “buy” experienced sales people, without detailed testing of their sales skills, is quite simply scary.

Understanding the core cultural differences is the best place to begin and then the next step is not to look for a quick fix, because there isn’t one. 

Every good Sales Manager/Director wants a skilled sales team reporting to him – but can he/she teach them enough to make them the best in their market? That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?

Nick Rees is currently looking for an inspirational business partner, employer or investment opportunity...preferably in Russia.

MOSCOW BLOG: Why do many Russians struggle in sales?

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