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.

Not Your Bitch

In 2009, author Neil Gaiman, who was born in England but has lived in the US since 1992, wrote a blogpost titled Entitlement Issues. In it he discusses a letter he received from a fan of the author George R R Martin, who complained that it seemed like Martin wasn’t spending enough time working on his latest novel.

Gaiman comments on how readers tend to think that, once they spend money on one of the books in a series, the author no longer has the right to do anything other than write the next one. 

At one point he writes “you’re complaining about George doing other things than writing the books you want to read as if your buying the first book in the series was a contract with him: that you would hand over your ten dollars, and George for his part would spend every waking hour until the series was done, writing the rest of the books for you.”

The English-American author also attempts to convince readers that authors are not obligated to fulfill their readers’ every wish, saying, “George R R Martin is not your bitch.”

Public Apologies

In America, celebrities are often considered suppliers, and their fans customers. Anytime celebrities make mistakes or behave in ways which don’t meet their fans’ expectations, they are expected to immediately issue formal apologies. Some of the more recent examples include:

Lance Armstrong – issued a public apology after admitting to using drugs to win the Tour de France seven times. Justin Bieber – issued a public apology after a video surfaced, in which the pop star told a racist joke. Reese Witherspoon – issued a public apology after being arrested for disorderly conduct.

Orient

Task: An assigned piece of work often to be finished within a certain time; something hard or unpleasant that has to be done; duty, function, subjection to adverse criticism, reprimand.

Job: A piece of work; a small miscellaneous piece of work undertaken on order at a stated rate; the object or material on which work is being done; something produced by or as if by work; something that has to be done; a specific duty, role, or function.

Orient: To cause to face or point toward the east; to set or arrange in any determinate position especially in relation to the points of the compass; to ascertain the bearings of; to set right by adjusting to facts or principles; to acquaint with the existing situation or environment; to direct toward the interests of a particular group.

Listening to Customers

Many companies implement customer suggestions when those suggestions challenge the company’s core principles. In response to customer suggestions for a less cluttered store, Walmart cut its total inventory by 15% and renovated stores to feel less cluttered. The changes resulted in immediate decreases in sales that totaled $1.85 billion dollars before Walmart reverted to its previous model of a much wider selection of products at low cost.

A leading manufacturer of bathroom fixtures is perhaps the most traditional example of a company that must collaborate with and understand the needs of its customers. It must constantly innovate and improve its products with its current and prospective customers in mind.

To this end, the company says: “To the customer, it can seem like each faucet was made with them in mind. We listen closely to what consumers want and need, invest in extensive research and design, and apply smart technological solutions that really do make our customers’ lives easier.” In other words, the how of their innovation process is largely defined by their customers.

In a major US-based international construction company, each of its projects is unique and requires a high degree of collaboration and dialogue with the customer. According to the company’s website, “We work with our clients as a team. Mutual respect provides the foundation for our success.”

Customers expect companies to listen to their input about how a project should look or be completed and create a plan in line with those expectations. The construction company’s website summarizes this idea by emphasizing the importance of finding solutions to their customers’ demands: “We are proactive in finding solutions for our clients that best achieve their goals.“

Free Goods

Americans are so worried about losing a customer’s business that if a customer is disgruntled and complains about bad service that they’ve received, it is common for the business to offer the customer free goods or vouchers for future service.

Additionally, many businesses have rewards programs or similar systems that allow customers to earn free goods by using a business’s services a certain number of times.

Many restaurants also offer free food to customers. Urbantastebuds.com lists over 400 American restaurants that offer free food to people on their birthdays. Some of the deals on this website include a free root beer float from A&W All American Food, a free breakfast from Mimi’s Café, and free pancakes from IHOP.

The customer is always right

“The customer is always right” is a very common phrase in American business. It was first made popular in the early 20th century when it was used as the slogan for Marshall Field’s Department Store in Chicago and London’s Selfridges Store (founded by American Harry Gordon Selfridge).

Both of these stores became extremely profitable, primarily because they had a reputation for good customer service. As a result, many American businesses have attempted to model their processes on the principle that the customer is always right.

In 1911, in an attempt to promote a local business, the Kansas City Star newspaper included an article about the business owner George E. Scott, saying: “Scott has done in the country what Marshall Field did in Chicago, Wanamaker did in New York and Selfridge in London. In his store he follows the Field rule and assumes that the customer is always right.“

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