Challenge, even contradict

Germans have a clear understanding that the consultant, supplier or vendor fills a need or gap on the side of the customer. It is implicitly agreed upon by both parties that the consultant, vendor or supplier offers something which the customer does not have or cannot do.

What for the customer is not a core activity or competence is core for the supplier. Both parties need each other, and acknowledge that in their working relationship. It is unspoken because it is a common understanding, an unspoken truth.

Time and again I have experienced how Germans serving me start off the conversation (business relationship) focused on learning as much about me and my situation as possible. Often I wonder why they need so much information. Why don‘t they simply ask me what I want or what I need?

Don’t serve. Truly serve.

It is inaccurate, however, to think that Germans don‘t listen to the customer. They simply see themselves as partners with the customer in solving the customer‘s problems, as equals, since the customer needs them as much as they need the customer.

Americans in Germany sense this in many everyday situations, whether it be in a retail store for clothing or food or hardware. But also in restaurants, or when interacting with personnel in German public transportation, or at the local bank. Germans who work with customers can come across – at least to Americans – as not customer-oriented, as distanced, almost disinterested.

Customers in Germany don‘t receive a big smile, a warm-hearted „Hello, how are you?“, a clear signal that the person in the store, restaurant, bank or train is happy to do anything and everything they can to serve them. Germans don‘t serve, at least not in that sense. Instead, they serve by delivering high quality products, services and solutions which meet – or exceed – the needs of the customer.

Obligation and duty to provide advice

And when it comes to complex, long-term business relationships this meeting and exceeding of customer needs includes situations in which the consultant-supplier-vendor takes the liberty (reserves the right) to steer or drive the business relationship. We‘re addressing that fine line between serving the customer (giving what they want) and consulting the customer (not giving what they want if it is not the best solution for them).

Often I have German customers who ask me to give them my advice on issues about which I do not necessarily feel competent to judge. My response is reluctant. They then push me: „Herr Magee, tell us how you see this situation. How would you proceed? What is your recommendation to us?“

Even more often I have experienced Germans who provide advice to each other, to Americans or to me, without having been asked (unsolicited advice). From the German point of view, it is not only their job (what they get paid for), but also their obligation and duty to provide advice, insight, consultation on matters which need to be addressed, and on which they believe to have valuable input.

German leads expect to be challenged by direct reports.

The shared logic among Germans in the business relationship – among customers and suppliers – is that the supplier in most cases knows better than the customer what is best for the customer. „That‘s why the customer hired us. We‘re the experts. They want us to advise them.“ And that advice may include the supplier challenging, debating with, or even contradicting, the customer.

There are clear parallels here to German leadership logic, which expects and invites vigorous discussion and debate within the team about critical topics. German leads expect to be challenged by their direct reports, who, in turn, see themselves as the experts within their area of responsibility. They interact (advise) their team lead along the same logic that a German supplier advises their German customer.

I witnessed this firsthand with one of my German clients who had invited me to attend some of his staff meetings, which included presentations from various departments. This German team lead would look for opportunities to challenge directly (and at times rather aggressively) the statements made by the presenter. My client was always very well prepared, so his questions went to the heart of the subject matter.

I asked him why he took this approach. „I want to see if the presenter has the backbone to defend their work results. I want to see if they have the courage, the self-confidence, the competence to challenge me. I love it when critical questions come back, when they challenge, or even contradict, me. They win my respect. What I don‘t want is some yes-person up front presenting. They are the subject-area experts. They should know better than me, and advise me!“