By John Magee
Das, was möglich ist, streben wir an.“ Literally: That which is possible we strive for. In a deeper sense: We always strive for the optimum.
„So gut wie möglich, nicht so gut wie nötig.“ Literally: As good as possible, not as good as necessary. In a deeper sense: As good as humanly possible or as good as we can possibly to do it, and never only as good as it needs to be, or not just as good as the customer has ordered it.
I look at my talking points on the topic of product philosophy. German logic: Products have intrinsic functionality. The optimal is oriented (aimed, pointed at) the ideal. American logic: For the buyer, the optimal is the product which offers the best value; for the seller, the optimal is the product which is most profitable. Two different worlds, is my impression. Germans and the ideal. Americans and the transaction.
Technical miracles. Practically no cost.
I think of Skype calls from my computer. On the computer screen I see my mother in suburban Philadelphia, far away from Bonn, Germany. What a technical miracle. In my early years in Germany, 1988 in then West Berlin, we would talk once a month by phone. A collect call via the German telepone operator. Today, any time during our overlapping waking hours from my computer or smartphone, as long as I have access to the web. And at practically no cost.
I see my mother‘s face on the screen. The camera on my laptop is above, at the top. But I can‘t look at her and into the camera at the same time. We can‘t look each other in the eyes. I move my eyes up and down, to look into her eyes, and to allow her to look into mine. Both at the same time is not possible, however. It‘s either or.
That‘s my image for how I believe Germans see the customers. Germans who serve customers, who have customers in the forefront of their minds. Germans in R&D, in product development, in sales or marketing, or Germans in services, or those responsible for strategy.
Germans want to serve the customer.
Yes, they are looking at and listening to the customer. On the screen. Just about fully focused. Taking in, understanding, preparing themselves to respond to the customer‘s needs, problems, wishes, challenges. But they – the Germans – also look time and again upwards, above, beyond, I think towards the ideal.
In other words, they listen not exclusively to the customer, but also, in addition to, the customer, above and beyond, towards the ideal. Yes, Germans want to serve the customer. And the strength of the their economy is proof that the German people knows how to listen to, understand and serve customers.
But they aim higher, strive for further, confident that doing so will guaranty that their customer‘s needs will be satisfied, almost as a byproduct, automatically. In fact, I have always sensed that Germans serving their customers, their markets, resist limiting what they can do by mere customer requirements. They are constantly alternating between looking at the person on the computer screen during the skype talk – as a metaphor – and looking into the camera, above the screen so to speak, and searching for the ideal.
American engineers as problem-solves and businesspeople
And yes, there is the danger that in doing so they do not fully listen to the customer, that their response to the customer is not exactly what the customer wanted or expected, that the customer feels not listened to, not understood, not served. And yes, there is the danger that they over-serve their customers, providing more that was requested or needed, or what the customer is willing to pay for.
And the American approach? Different. Not totally so, but often in a nuanced way. Americans, too, are capable and willing to aim for the ideal, to look beyond the customer. At the same time they feel more comfortable with staying focused on looking at the screen, listening very carefully to how the customer defines their needs and wants, to allowing the customer to define what the ideal is.
Whereas the German is engineer is part inventor and part artist – at it is the German engineer who is at the heart of German products – the American engineer is part pragmatic problem-solver and part businessperson (even salesperson). This difference is true not only for the engineers on both sides of the Atlantic, but for both cultures in general.
Go beyond what I was requesting
Americans fear that their German colleagues don‘t fully focus on the customer. Their German colleagues, in turn, fear that the Americans focus only on the customer. It becomes more complex, and difficult to reconcile and manage, depending on from which business culture the customer comes, whether Germany, the U.S. or another.
Recently I recognized that my website needed to be modified. I identified those changes through input from users and from a few trusted advisors. I then defined them in terms of scope, budget and schedule. In each of my talks with web agencies here in Bonn the tendancy was strong to go beyond what I was requesting, what I needed. The Germans, all very capable, wanted to go deeper, broader, more systematically. I had to slow them down, remind them of the defined limits.
Perhaps they wanted to convince me to give them a bigger mandate, a bigger contract. Perhaps, but not necessarily. More likely, they were looking beyond me on the computer screen, in the skype call, figuratively speaking. Each time I had to pull them back.
„That‘s too much for now. It exceeds scope and budget, and will take too long.“ But, maybe they‘re right. They‘re the experts. It is I who need them, as much as they need me.