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.

Critical Loyalty

Capable consultants not only provide good advice, but they also denken mit, think with. With the client about solutions, ideas, approaches to implementation. Therein lies the added value. That is why consultants are paid. Mitdenken, thinking with, however, also means thinking independently, including correcting or contradicting the customer.

A good consultant is not an order taker. Instead she knows when to challenge the customer, when to point out what is best for the customer, even when the customer does not recognize it, believe it or want to hear it.

Criticism and critique are in general positive in the German culture. To accept criticism, though, is not easy for anyone. Criticism can be interpreted as disloyalty, even though constructive criticism is in many ways the highest degree of loyalty. Criticism points out dangers, identifies ways to optimize, helps to make difficult decisions.

Germans are a direct people, including how they communicate criticism. But they also see it as their duty, as their responsibility, to point out to their colleagues, boss or customer what does not or will not work. Discreet conversations under four eyes which address critical issues is what capable consultants do. These conversations are a sign of loyalty and trust.

Kritische Loyalität. Literally critical loyalty, or loyalty which voices criticism, which address critical topics.

Do it Yourself

Often German managers would rather complete a certain task themselves instead of passing it on to a team member. Many do repairs in their house, fix their cars, and some sit in their office at home until late into the night.

For those with limited financial resources, doing things yourself might be a question of economics. For others, there is a German reason: they often have a clear picture in their mind of how the final product should look. That they don‘t hand it off to a team member is not a sign of mistrust or lack of confidence.

Instead, Germans are skeptical that the other person will fully understand what is expected. By the time they have explained the task and how the final outcome should look, they most likely will have completed half of the work.

For the team member will create her own picture of the final product. Two pictures of what the work should look like. A dilemma for every customer-supplier relationship.

Clear Picture

When a German customer contacts a potential supplier, he has a clear picture of his needs. And he has informed himself about those suppliers capable of meeting them. The German customer expects the supplier to meet those needs as precisely as possible. The German customer has clarity not only about the what, but also to some extent about the how.

Germans are considered to be rather bureaucratic. Despite all of the laws and regulations, governmental organizations can move quickly, provided that the citizens requesting their assistance are well prepared and can provide all of the necessary information the bureaucracy needs.

What regulations apply? Which requirements need to be met? The ideal citizen is well informed and is clear about what he or she needs, including what rights and obligations he or she has. Governmental bodies typically have a reception area set up whose sole purpose is to assist those citizens who have not done the minimal amount of preparation.

For it is considered impolite, selfish and unprofessional to demand the time of anyone without having first done one’s homework. Opportunity costs are thereby lost. During that time other, well prepared citizens could have been helped. Citizens in Germany can inform themselves of just about everything via the Internet and printed information.

Consensus via Dialogue

Precisely because it is so important to Germans to work in an independent, self-managing way, and because they usually have a clear picture in their mind of what the end result should look like, it is critical that customer and supplier reach as high a level of consensus as possible about what is to be achieved and how. All too often, however, the supplier simply asks for an okay from the customer about certain details.

When the details of collaboration need to be worked out, then colleagues from both sides sit down together and discuss them. Germans strive to work in integrated ways, including work processes. German customers and suppliers do their best to work as partners.

To clarify details is to address the how, whether it be a technical matter, how a given process is interpreted and lived, or how the organization is structured. Germans place great importance on clarifying as many details upfront as possible. They want to anticipate possible problems. Participating in and contributing to this upfront clarification process is critical to the success of customer-supplier relationships in Germany.

Abstimmen. Clarify, decide on, together; to decide based on voting; to bring things together, harmonize, agree on; to co-decide, to discuss with another person; to listen carefully and consider the other point of view, then find a joint solution; to establish consensus together.

Der Kluge baut vor

Vorbereiten. To prepare. To anticipate a situation; to be enabled to complete a task; to do the work needed beforehand; to develop oneself.

The Germans place great value in being well prepared. They gather information early, complete the initial steps, anticipate what will come. They believe that being prepared saves time and effort, and allows them to make the best decisions. 

Der Kluge baut vor. The intelligent one prepares early. Those who are not prepared, who, for example, forget to buy certain things when food shopping, or cannot respond to questions in a meeting, have only themselves to blame. To be well prepared is in Germany not voluntary, not a nice-to-have, it is expected. Germans are under pressure to think things through, to write things down, to do their homework.

The purpose of good preparation is to get the work done faster and better. One needs no more than a shopping list when it is clear what meal will be cooked. To prepare for a meeting is not difficult, provided one knows what will be discussed.

In Germany, most people have a concrete idea of how things should be, of what they plan to eat, of what they will discuss in a meeting. Germans not only make plans, they live according to them.