Frau Schmitz

A few weeks back I caught a stomach virus. I needed to pick up some medicine at my physician‘s office – Dr. Planck. It was a Friday afternoon. I did not have an appointment. His office, in the middle of Bonn, is small, with just Dr. Planck and his secretary/office manager. It‘s next to impossible to just „drop in“, but my schedule that week gave me no other choice.

I entered his practice, walked passed the waiting room nodding to the five or six folks reading magazines or scrolling up and down on smartphones, then popped my head in the secretary‘s office. „You don‘t have an appointment, Herr Magee.“

There was no smile on her face. In fact, she rarely smiles. Gruff would be the right word in English. Gruff is often the right word for Germans who Americans believe should be happy, shiny, smiling, friendly, and customer-oriented.

Friendly incompetence vs. unfriendly competence

„No, I‘m sorry, Frau Schmitz. I simply couldn‘t find the time to call. And my schedule ….“ She interrupted me in a kind of complaining tone. It wasn‘t clear exactly what she said. „Please wait in the waiting room, Herr Magee.“ I smiled and thanked her.

Twenty-five years I have lived in Germany. This type of interaction I‘ve experienced more than a thousand times: twenty-five years times twelve months times four times a month. I am very familiar with it. In my early years my reaction would have been: „Typical German. Unfriendly (gruff). Rules-obsessed (no appointment). Not customer-oriented („Don‘t they want me as a patient?“)

I don‘t think like that any more, though. Frau Schmitz got me in within forty-five minutes. Dr. Planck was happy to see me. He asked not only about the virus, but about other aspects of my health, then wrote out the prescription. Frau Schmitz handled the paperwork very quickly and efficiently, then recommended what apothecary I should go to. She also had a few other tips about what I should eat and drink over the next few days. All the while she began to smile and engage in some very pleasant small talk.

Frau Schmitz appeared at first to be Frau Gruff, but then was in reality Frau Competent, Frau Caring and Frau Pleasant, all in one. Whenever people ask me to recommend a good physician in Bonn, I always recommend Dr. Planck (and Frau Schmitz).

That Fine Line

Let‘s visit that fine line again, between when to serve the customer – meaning give the customer what they want, have ordered, believe is best for them, even if it is not – and when to consult the customer – meaning to dissuade (persuade against) the customer from what they think is best for them, in order to propose what is actually best.

This fine line is very difficult to walk in any business culture. It is especially difficult to walk it if you are not native to that culture. Carefully developed business relationships can be damaged, or even ruined, within just a few interactions if how to walk this line is not understood.

And it is the case that Germans and Americans define, and thus walk, that line differently. It is not uncommon for Americans to purposely keep their Germans colleagues away from their American customers. Nor is it uncommon the other way around – Germans shielding their German customers from American colleagues.

A true friend

This is not about protecting turf or preventing internal competition. It is based on experience. The German approach to discerning (defining) when to serve and when to consult often does not work in the U.S. The same goes for the American approach in Germany. This should be of no surprise to those readers who work in the German-American business context.

When discussing this very complex subject with my American and German clients I ask them to define what makes for a truly great friend. In the end, the discussion almost always leads to the same statement: „A true friend is someone who will tell you what you need to hear – because it is in your best interest – even if that friend knows that you will not be happy to hear it, and it could damage, or even ruin, your friendship.“

I then ask my clients – German and American colleagues – whether it is any different in your collaboration as colleagues, or in your business relationships with customers or suppliers?