Friendly Incompetence

Over the last five or so years I have noticed more and more how German service personnel begin the conversation with Womit kann ich Ihnen helfen?: How can I help you. This is a new trend. Germans aren‘t known for saying things like that. It still sounds artificial, untypical, non-native.

Are the Germans not helpful? I suspect this Womit kann ich Ihnen helfen? has been imported from the U.S., where the „customer is king.“ So many Germans live and work in the United States, so many Germans do business there, that it is inevitable that they make comparisons to their own country, just as we Americans do when in Germany. And Germans very much like American customer-orientation. In fact, there has been a debate here for years about Germany as a Servicewüste, translated literally as service-desert.

It‘s not that Germans are not customer-oriented. That would be far too simple. How could a national economy be so strong worldwide and not be oriented towards responding to the needs of customers, whether in the business-to-consumer or business-to-business context?

„How can I help you?“

It is this explicit „How can I help you“ statement which is non-native to the Germans. But again, why? I believe that it is implicit in everything Germans think and do for their customers. Of course it is all about helping the customer, solving their problems, responding to their needs.

I recall addressing this distinction in a management seminar with Germans and Americans. The Germans smiled among themselves as if they were communicating to each other an insider-joke. I said: „Ok, what are you folks smiling about?“ One of them said freundliche Inkompetenz, which I translated for their American colleagues as „friendly incompetence.“ I knew what they meant, but asked them to explain.

„You go into stores here in the U.S. and you are greeted by the most friendly, positive, attractive people who give you the impression that they will do anything they possibly can to serve you. But, when you begin to ask a few questions, they often do not know the answers. If you ask complex questions, their face gets red and they say that they have to speak with the manager.“

Friendly incompetence vs. unfriendly competence

A few of the American colleagues chuckled, others did not. I asked the group what could be the reasons for freundliche Inkompetenz. Several responses came: „Sales in retail is low-paying. They aren‘t trained very well. Companies put all product information, including FAQs, up on their websites. Customers go into see the product first-hand, then buy or not buy.“

I then asked the German managers if the opposite of „friendly incompetence“ existed in Germany. Unfreundliche Kompetenz answered the one. Unfriendly competence. They all nodded, some laughed. „Yes, it‘s unbelievable how unfriendly sales people, waiters and so on can be in Germany. Even in the business world. We love the attitude here in the U.S. It makes life so much more enjoyable!“

As a side note, I recall speaking with the German ambassador to the U.S. years ago when I worked for the Christian Democrats in the Bundestag. „Herr Magee, it‘s amazing how easy it is to return a product to a store and get a full cash refund. That would never be possible in Germany. The sales people there argue with you and want you to state the reasons why you are returning the purchase!“

Friendly incompetence or unfriendly incompetence, which would you choose? I guess it depends on the situation. We have both in each country. Ideal would be friendly competence.

Friendly Incompetence