American customers and follow-up

Question

“After entering into an agreement Germans do far less follow-up than do Americans. Customers in the U.S., however, often want to maintain high frequency follow-up with their suppliers. How can we get our German colleagues to acknowledge that and help their American colleagues to keep their U.S. customers up to date?”

UC

This is an extraordinarily important question. Why? 

It is one thing if collaboration between Americans and Germans about the frequency of follow-up leads to internal problems. It is a wholly different thing if those problems affect their relationship with customers. 

Let’s first look at my response to a previous question about how to handle follow-up within the organisation, and not regarding customers. The question was: “How to follow up on an agreement without upsetting German colleagues?”

First, ask yourself when is it truly necessary to do follow-up. Americans do a lot of follow-up purely out of nervousness and anxiety. 

Second, when entering into an agreement with your German colleagues, discuss and agree on the frequency of follow-up. Be sure to point out to them the American logic regarding follow-up. Sensitize them to the cultural difference. While doing so allow them to sensitize you about their German logic.

Third, when following up with your German colleagues simply ask them if you are upsetting them. Yes, literally ask them. Give them a chance to signal to what the right frequency is. At the same time, explain to them the parameters within which you are operating, which, in turn, require follow-up.

Fourth, at an appropriate time reach out to your German colleagues and ask them to explain to you how Germans fundamentally handle follow-up. Ask them literally what the German logic is. Chances are your German colleagues will ask you about the American logic.

Ok, let’s now look at the question stated above: how to coordinate follow-up with your German colleagues when it involves keeping the U.S.-customer informed.

First: Continually explain to your German colleagues the nature of the American business environment, especially the important of follow-up in maintaining an on-going overview of commitments, priorities, decisions, projects. 

Folks, this will require a lot of patience on your part. You will have to do a lot of explaining. And explaining of things which for you as Americans in the U.S. business context are seldom discussed, seldom debated, seldom questions. It is what it is. 

Well, you are working in a global environment. Or more precisely, you are working in the US-German environment. You have no other choice but to address the deeper-lying cultural differences. Good. Do it. Get good at it. Combine the strengths of two great cultures. To the benefit of your customers. And to the detriment of your competitors !

Second: always acknowledge the rightness and legitimacy of the German logic. Honor the strengths of the German approach to follow-up. Remember, Germany has the fourth-largest economy in the world with only about 80 million people. They are certainly doing a whole lot of things right. Which means that how they handle agreements in general, and follow-up specifically, works and leads to success. 

Third: in the case of specific customers, go into the details. Explain to your German colleagues: 1. the concrete follow-up needs of the customer; 2. the customer’s reasons for those needs; and 3. the deeper-lying logic in the U.S. which drives such needs.

Fourth: then, together, formulate a follow-up plan, and with the customer. Yes, seriously. First you ask your customer to define their information and follow-up needs. Get into their heads. Identify what their real needs are not their nice-to-have needs. They’ll have plenty of those. 

Then discuss those customer-defined needs internally, come up with a draft plan, send that draft to your German colleagues for discussion. Then work out a joint-plan. Take that back and discuss it with the customer. When doing so, explain to the customer the German logic. 

I’ll bet they will find that interesting. Why? Because they, too, are probably working in and across cultures. They, too, experience cultural differences. And they very likely will be impressed by how you and your German colleagues manage the cultural complexity, and most importantly, get the complexity to work for them as the customer !

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