Every colleague, team, company is part of an ecosystem. In a web of customer-supplier relationships. Receive something. Add value to it. Pass it along. It is an approach shared by both customer and supplier. What’s the German approach?

Consult vs. Serve

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. 


Customer-Supplier Collaboration

In Germany two parties enter into a dialogue about matching a concrete request to the method and approach of the supplier. This what is then defined and agreed upon. But, once this dialogue is completed, there is limited input from the customer about the how, about the actual execution of the request. Responsibility for the how is transferred from the customer to the supplier of the product or service. 

For if you have contracted an expert to solve a problem, perform a task, complete a job, or manage a project, it is expected that this expert is capable of doing it independent of input from the customer on the method used. These details have been more than adequately discussed and accepted by the customer.

Fulfilling the contract does not mean, however, a disconnect between customer and supplier. Steady, but not constant, information flow maintains the collaboration. The customer is informed on a regular basis about the status of the work. The German customer, however, expects the external expert to think beyond the limited scope of the contract. 

He is expected to understand the purpose of his work in the broader context of the client’s business. Depending on the scope of the task performed, the German customer views the supplier as accountable not only for the results of his particular work, but also for how these results affect related areas of the client company.


Customer-Supplier Expectations

The German customer expects the supplier to complete the requested task correctly and expertly, meaning almost without error. The task is to be completed within schedule and budget. These boundary conditions should be negotiated and held to as precisely as possible. Germans, however, will sacrifice schedule and budget in order to receive the product or service they ordered. 

In addition, the German customer wants to know the method and approach applied to his problem. He expects to be persuaded by the solution’s validity and effectiveness. Once the work has begun the customer in the German context wants to be informed about the progress, but neither on a constant basis nor in a detailed way.

On the other hand, the supplier of a product or service in the German context expects from the customer a clearly defined mandate to perform a specific task, job or project. The customer should know beforehand what he wants and communicate it clearly. There is less tolerance for a customer who comes with a poorly thought-through request in need of revision. The customer should take into account how the supplier works. 

In a way, the customer must respect the needs of the expert. This includes adapting the request to the expert’s processes. To guaranty effective communication the customer should provide a designated contact person. In the end, the supplier expects from the client the security that his efforts will be compensated fully, on schedule and with little bureaucracy.