Thinkers and Tinkerers

The German state of Baden-Württemberg boasts an unusually large number of local companies that have made it big on the global market. That’s in large part due to the creative and entrepreneurial spirit of its residents.

Made in Germany takes a look at how so many local companies have taken little-known products and turned them into export hits.

Listen carefully to what the head of Stahl says about training their people, retaining them at any cost, and giving them the freedom to constantly innovate. And most importantly, striving to go beyond customer needs.

Jeff Bezos 1999

Look at his eyes. Listen to his statements. Total focus. On the needs of the customer. The interviewer is struggling. Because he thinks about Amazon as an internet or tech company. Bezos is very patient with his inability to listen carefully.

denken mit auf Augenhöhe

“Bei aller Strategie bleiben wir menschlich: Wir hören zu, denken mit und kommunizieren auf Augenhöhe.” In English: “Yes, it’s about strategy. But more importantly it’s about people. We are people. We listen. We think with. And we communicate at eye-level.”

Think with. At eye-level. That’s it. The German logic. In black and white. Clear as a bell.

The quote is from gambit. A Germany-based marketing and communications agency. Specialists. Serving companies who build buildings. gambit understands architects and interior designers.

I stumbled across gambit when noticing how superb the Simonswerk website is. Created by gambit. Simonswerk. A German mid-sized company located near Hanover, with a strong presence in France, Italy, and most importantly in the United States.

And why the term gambit as the name of their agency? They provide the definition on their website: “gambit [gæmbit], n. (Schach) einleitender Schachzug, (in conversation) einleitende Bemerkung.”

From MerriamWebster: “A chess opening in which a player risks one or more pawns or a minor piece to gain an advantage in position; a remark intended to start a conversation or make a telling point.”

Beraten vs. Dienen

The Germans use the word service very often, and in many different situations. But, service is not native to the German language. The German equivalent for service is dienen. And the word dienen can be traced back as far as the 8th century. At its root dienen was in connection with Läufer (runner), Bote (messenger) or Knecht (farm laborer or servant). Dienen means simply to be helpful or to be useful. 

But, it also means (and is often felt by Germans to mean) service in the sense of servitude, subjugation or subordination of one person to another person, to the one served, assisted or helped. Especially if one is serving exclusively the individual needs, wishes or interests of another person, one can feel a loss of independence and autonomy. One is captive, no longer free. 

However, if a common goal or common purpose is being served, something for the good of all, then serving is understood as positive. This might provide an indication for why contemporary Germans avoid using the term dienen, and prefer the English word service, or a combination of a German and an English term (i.e. Kundenservice = customer service).

The German term beraten, on the other hand, means to give someone advice about what they should do. The root is Rat, which means counsel. To beraten with another means to discuss and consider together, to hold council on a specific issue, situation or problem. A Berater is a consultant. 

The original definition of beraten means to take precautions, in the sense of food and provisions in a household: Hausrat (household things), Vorrat (supply, reserve, stock), Gerät (tool, utensil, appliance, device). Beraten (to give advice, to consult) is oriented, therefore, towards a future action, something to be done. Beraten serves the purpose of preparing someone for a future or possible situation. 

Gracious. Helpful. Selfless.

The English term service implies graciousness, helpfulness and to a degree selflessness. To serve is to be humble. Serve stems from the Latin word servitium, which meant the condition of a slave. Service, at its roots involves one person serving another or several. It is inherently personal. The term service in the context of American business involves the notion of servitium, to respond to the needs of your customer, to serve that customer personally and individually.

But service also anticipates compensation: payment, customer loyalty, growth of the business. Service is both personal and commercial. They go hand-in-hand. Impersonal service seldom leads to commercial success. Personal service without fair compensation is servitude. And, indeed, some business relationships are so one-sided that the one serving feels more like a slave than a free person.

To consult means to seek advice, to refer to, to take into account, to consider, as one would consult an attorney or a physician. To consult also means to exchange views, to confer. As with service the term consult has its roots in Latin: consultare, meaning to deliberate, counsel, consult or take counsel. To consult means to advise, to recommend, to suggest, to provide an opinion about what could or should be done in a certain situation or in response to a certain problem. 

The consultant, therefore, is the expert applying their knowledge and expertise to improve the situation of a customer. But, essential to consulting a client is understanding their needs, their situation. This is done by first consulting with, meaning listening to that customer.

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.

“Soup Nazi”

The U.S. tv series Seinfeld. Jerry, George and Elaine visit a new soup stand. Jerry explains that the owner is known as the Soup Nazi due to his insistence on a strict manner of behavior while placing an order, but his soups are so outstandingly delicious that the stand is constantly busy. 

At the soup stand, George complains about not receiving bread with his meal. When he presses the issue, George’s order is taken away and his money returned. On a subsequent visit, George buys soup (with a warning that he is pushing his luck), but Elaine, having scoffed at Jerry’s advice on how to order, draws the Soup Nazi’s ire and is banned for a year.

Wait, stop ! We’ll let the video tell the rest of the story.

Why this now famous American TV series episode? In the context of German-American collaboration? And as it relates to the topic customer? Well, show it to any Americans working in the Germany-USA space and then ask them what it is like for them as the customer interacting with Germans as the supplier.

Faster Horses

Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, had a reputation for ignoring customers’ requests. Two of his more famous quotes are:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’” and “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants as long as it is black.”

“Cut off at the branch’s roots”

Consumer products giant Procter and Gamble sold its hair products business and its fragrances division, including the struggling German brand Wella.

But some criticism of Wella had been going in the other direction, namely that innovations happen too impatiently, and that Procter and Gamble thinks in the same fast terms as in the drugstore-based consumer products business.

Hairdressers in Germany, however, want to use the products they know over the long term, providing that they have had positive experiences with these products. Too many new things annoy them.

When it acquired Wella, Procter and Gamble bought its way into an unfamiliar field, namely the hair salon business, said a manager with a competitor. Then the company cut off the brand’s roots by closing Wella’s headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany, thereby losing institutional knowledge and the confidence of its vast network of hairdressers.

According to the manager, a former strength of Wella, namely their sales reps’ good relationship with hairdressers, was lost.

Source: Handelsblatt Global Edition. June 10, 2015. “The Great Brand Sell-off.” By Christoph Kapalschiniski.