Germans consult. Americans serve.

A big source of misunderstanding between Americans and Germans, rarely made explicit, is about whether business should inherently be customer-centric, supplier-centric, or somehow balanced, as our fourth column in this series explains.

Germans and Americans alike will of course say they care about their customers. But they associated different meanings with that notion. And that often leads to misunderstandings and frustration. American providers of business services proudly offer exactly that: a service. By contrast, German providers view their proposition less as a service and more as a consultation. The difference is subtle, but consequential.


Mandate. Latin mandatum, task, job, order to do something for another; to represent another legally; an elected office to represent the voters.

A mandate is a broadly defined task where the service provider – consultant, attorney, architect, subject area expert – advises the client. The business relationship is not made up of small, individual tasks.

Instead, the service provider – the person who has been granted the mandate – serves, represents, and advises the client in a complex area involving many different kinds of issues and interactions.

Attorneys represent their clients in legal matters. Political office holders represent their voters. A mandate obligates the adviser to act in the interest of the client even without the client‘s expressed permission.

Auf Augenhöhe

Augenhöhe. Literally at eye level. Equals. On equal footing.

It is said that Germans will work without stopping until they have completed the task. A prerequisite for such effort is that the parties involved are partners at eye level, are equals, the opposite of a master-slave type of relationship. Germans, as employees and as companies, want to work more as consultants, as experts, than as mere service providers or as servants.

Germans are self-confident about their abilities and skills. Even when the relationship in terms of the contract, the law or societal expectations cannot possibly be one of equals, they expect, and often demand, a business relationship auf Augenhöhe, at eye level, to be treated like colleagues.

To collaborate at eye level is not just a matter of good form. It is a serious demand especially from small- to medium-sized companies, the famed German Mittelstand. Many German companies advertise their willingness and ability to work together with business parters auf Augenhöhe, signaling their desire to be open, transparent and honest.

Companies which promise collaboration at eye level are stating that they treat all partners, regardless of size or prestige, as equal partners. Respect is critical, not the size of the contract or the nature of the partnership. This includes informing the other partner immediately when things go wrong. One‘s expertise is put to good service for the other partner. Neither side looks to gain advantage.

Germans strive for a high level of openness and honesty from the very beginning of a business relationship. As a well-known German company once stated: Zusammenarbeit auf Augenhöhe sichert Qualität. Colloboration at eye level guarantees quality.

Customer is not King

In Germany, at the beginning of the business relationship the responsibility for how the work is done – methods and approaches – is transferred from the customer to the supplier. For the customer has contracted the expert to solve a problem, to complete a task, to manage a project. It is expected that the expert do so with limited involvement of the customer. For the two parties have already discussed and agreed on the details of how the work will be done.

The German client, therefore, wants to know upfront the methods and approaches used by the supplier. At the same time, the customer respects how the supplier works, including adapting customer requirements to supplier methods and approaches. In the end the supplier has the say about her own processes, which produce the results desired by the customer.

Every product and service is a clear indication of how a company works, their methods and approaches. And German customers are deeply interested in how the work is done. They want to understand how the supplier works. They want to be convinced by the supplier‘s expertise. The German customer also knows that the success of the business relationship will depend on close collaboration, on the coordination of work processes from both sides.

Whenever a company as the customer contracts an external supplier, they are implicitly admitting to a gap in their own expertise, implicitly stating that the area of expertise of the supplier is not a part of the their own core expertise. Companies small and large, regional and international, are constantly defining what their core expertise is, what business they are in. Defining that means defining what external suppliers they need to draw on.

This is one reason why for Germans the customer is not king, but instead a partner. German suppliers expect, and in many cases demand, that the customer accept them as partners, accept a partnership of equals, auf Augenhöhe, literally at eye‘s level.

Germans see a customer-supplier relationship as complementary, with each side having its respective strengths and weaknesses, its core and non-core areas. To do business together means to help fill each other‘s gaps in expertise, to complement each other, to serve each other.

Supplier as Partner

Customer-supplier relationships make up the web of today‘s modern economy. Globalization is demanding more and more specilization. No company can succeed without trusting relationships with suppliers.

Nonetheless, it is the suppliers who first feel the pain when the economy weakens. German companies, however, do their best to maintain their viability, their strength. They want their suppliers to succeed along with them. Suppliers are viewed as partners in innovation.

Germany‘s largest global companies stress, therefore, time and again the importance of maintaining partnerships with their suppliers, how they together strive to establish ever higher standards of quality.

One of the largest German manufacturers of medical technology stated recently that a supplier‘s size in terms of revenue is far less important than its technical ability and willingness to work together over a long period of time. They see themselves as partners in product development.

Another German supplier operating worldwide has developed into a major customer in its own right, setting up a complex international network of suppliers, integrating its research and development area with a few selected suppliers. Its motto is: Des einen Lücke, ist des anderen Expertise, loosely translated as: The gap in the one company, is the expertise of the other.

More than Just Business

A mandate is a serious matter in Germany. The client needs to think through and research carefully, which service providers are not only capable, but more importantly trustworthy.

Even though German law strictly defines the relationship between for examply an attorney or tax advisor and the client, the German client seeks a kind of special relationship over the long term, similar to one between a physician and a patient. For the German client its a matter of discretion.

And even when the advisor has significant decision making latitude, there is nonetheless constant dialogue and collaboration between the two parties. This is more than a typical business relationship. It is both business and personal. It is about representing the interests of the client in complex matters.

Both parties need to respect each other at a deeper level. They must be convinced that they can work together. Any kind of misunderstanding can lead to a difference of opinions, which potentially can allow mistrust to seep into the working relationship.

A political mandate is different. Although the office holder focuses on serving the interests of the voters, there is no personal relationship between them. The voters have to demand transparency in order to fully trust their elected office holder.

And because office holders have to represent the interests of many kinds of voters, there is a certain natural level of mistrust over and against her or him. If voters are dissatisfied, or have lost trust in the office holder, the political system enables them to end the relationship.

Taking on a mandate is a complex and delicate matter in Germany. In business as well as in politics.


Auftrag. A command, instruction, order, to complete a task, job, assignment; to order a product or service; an obligation, a duty. An Auftrag is given by a manager or a customer. The Auftrag indicates that someone will do something for another. An Auftrag can be rejected. They can be legally binding. An employee can assign herself an Aufgabe, but not an Auftrag.

Aufträge (plural of Auftrag) are foundational to any economy. Whether it is involves one colleague answering the email of another or one company building a production site for another, Aufträge are the lifeblood of commercial activitiy.

An Auftrag is at its core a request from a customer. Taking on the Auftrag signals that one will complete it to the best of their ability. The details are set in a purchase order or in a contract.

German companies report time and again that their Auftragsbücher, order books, are full, but that they cannot fulfill all of them due to a shortage of trained personnel, often technicians and engineers. Taking on an Auftrag is no guarantee that one can complete it.

This also means a certain degree of risk for the Auftraggeber (Auftrag giver), the customer, that the supplier will not supply the end product on the agreed upon date, or at the expected level of quality. In many ways it is also unimportant who completes the task. In contrast to an Aufgabe, an Auftrag is impersonal, business-like, unemotional. The relationship is all about the execution of the job. No more, no less.

A self-identification with the task is secondary. Only the final results count. Is the Auftrag completed, rejected or not doable, then it automatically no longer exists.


Aufgabe. Task, job, project given to a person to complete.

An Aufgabe in Germany is a job one feels obligated to do to the best of their ability. More than completing the task, it is a personal matter, a question of professionalism and integrity. People can assign themselves an Aufgabe or have it assigned to them by a third party.

The Germans say Aufgabe für das Leben, a task for life; Sie müssen Ihre Hausaufgaben machen. You have to do you homework; Man wächst mit den Aufgaben. One grows with the tasks given to them; Eine zu große Aufgabe. A task too great.

It is important for Germans to have a clear separation of tasks, clear borders delineating who does what. It is considered to be a negative sign for a team when one German says to another: „I thought that was your job.“ Even worse is when a German employee does not have an Aufgabe or has too few Aufgaben.

This could be an indication that management doesn‘t regard all too highly that employee‘s capabilities. On the flip side, German employees often take on as many Aufgaben as possible. This is part ambition, part job security, part arrogance in the sense of being able to claim to their colleagues „That they have so much to do, so much more than the others.“

For Germans it is important to have important Aufgaben, to have a lot of Aufgaben, to complete them well.