“Soup Nazi”

The U.S. tv series Seinfeld. Jerry George and Elaine visit a new soup stand. Jerry explains that the owner, Yev Kassem, 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 Kassem’s ire and is banned for a year.

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

Not a consumer’s job

Harvard Business Review. October 31, 2001. Tom Davenport, Business Professor at Babson College: Was Steve Jobs a Good Decision Maker?

„He (Jobs) also didn’t believe in analytical decisions based on extensive market research.“ Quoting The New York Times’ obituary: 

„Mr. Jobs’s own research and intuition, not focus groups, were his guide. When asked what market research went into the iPad, Mr. Jobs replied: ‘None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.’”

Steve Jobs was not of German descent. It was known, however, that he had great respect for German design and technology. He and his family, it was reported, had debated for weeks what brand of washer they should choose. His arguments won out. They purchased a Miele.

Waiters and Waitresses

In American restaurants, waiters and waitresses typically earn well-below minimum wage for their work. Instead, they are supposed to earn their money by providing good service to their customers, who will tip them based on the quality of their service.

For Americans this means that the waiters and waitresses should check in regularly with the customers, ask if they need anything, and fulfill any requests that the customers have – in other words, to act as the customers’ servants. 

Americans are willing to behave this way because they expect monetary remuneration for their actions.

Serve the Customer

In many cultures, hospitality – the relationship between a guest and a host – is of great importance. Being considered an inhospitable host is dishonorable to the guest and the local community alike. This idea is similar to the concept of serving a customer in the personal, respectful way that most Americans consumers expect. One example of the importance of this concept is found in the vision of Hilton Hotels: “To fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality.”

This idea is not constrained to hotels, however. The president of outdoor supplier L.L.Bean, Chris McCormick, described customer service as a key part of the company’s success: “Superior customer service has always been and always will be the cornerstone of our brand and heritage and an attribute that differentiates us from the rest of the pack. It goes back to L.L.’s Golden Rule of treating customers like human beings.”

In American English, the above quote can be succinctly summarized as: “the customer is always right.” This is a very common phrase that most consumers and businesses treat as an underlying truth in all interactions with customers. Even if the customer is actually wrong, it is up to the service provider to treat the customer with respect, understand his point of view, and offer a solution. Anything short of these expectations will be viewed as bad service.

As one senior consultant at a major American strategy consulting firm put it, “Service is defined completely by the customer.” In the consulting realm and many other industries, customers come with clearly defined needs and expectations. The service provider must understand those expectations and deliver service that is consistent with what the customer expects.

Craig Reid, former President of Operations – Americas at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and now CEO at Auberge Resorts, similarly stated that “If customers are buying excellence – and they are the people who define excellence – you’ve constantly got to measure whether they agree with your interpretation of excellence at that particular time. And that definition of excellence evolves constantly.”

Servitium

Serve: 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.

Personal: Of, relating to, or affecting a particular person; done in person without the intervention of another; carried on between individuals directly; relating to the person or body; relating to an individual or an individual’s character, conduct, motives, or private affairs often in an offensive manner; being rational and self-conscious; of, relating to, or constituting personal property; intended for private use or use by one person. From Latin persona.

Helpful: Of service or assistance, useful.

Selfless: Having no concern for self, unselfish.

Humble: Not proud or haughty, not arrogant or assertive; reflecting, expressing, or offered in a spirit of deference or submission; ranking low in a hierarchy or scale. From Latin humilis low, humble, from humus earth.

Consultare

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, consult has its roots in Latin: consultare, meaning to deliberate, counsel, consult or take counsel.

And 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 her knowledge and expertise to improve the situation of a customer.

But essential to consulting a client is understanding his needs, his situation. This is done by first consulting with, meaning listening to that customer.

Advise: To give (someone) a recommendation about what should be done; to give information or notice to; to give a recommendation about what should be done; to talk with someone in order to decide what should be done.

Confer: To compare views or take counsel; to bestow from (or as if from) a position of superiority; to give as a property or characteristic to someone or something. From Latin conferre to bring together.

Counsel: Advice given especially as a result of consultation; a policy or plan of action or behavior. Middle English conseil, from Anglo-French cunseil, from Latin consilium, from consulere to consult.

Recommend: To present as worthy of acceptance or trial; to endorse as fit, worthy, or competent; to make acceptable. From Latin recommendare, from Latin re- + commendare to commend.

Suggest: To seek to influence; to call forth, evoke; to mention or imply as a possibility; to propose as desirable or fitting; to offer for consideration or as a hypothesis; to call to mind by thought or association; to serve as a motive or inspiration for. From Latin suggestus, past participle of suggerere to pile up, furnish, suggest, from sub- + gerere to carry.

Apply: To put to use especially for some practical purpose; to bring into action; to put into operation or effect; to employ diligently or with close attention; to have relevance or a valid connection; to make an appeal or request especially in the form of a written application. From Latin applicare, from ad- + plicare to fold.

Only live to serve

In 1991, Disney produced the movie “Beauty and the Beast,” a film about a prince who is turned into a beast and the young woman who helps return him to human form. Although this movie is set in France, because it was written by Americans for American children, it exemplifies many of the values held in American culture.

In this film, many of the characters are servants, and they have no trouble expressing their desire to serve their master. In fact, at one point in the movie, the servants avow that they “only live to serve.” Nevertheless, no American would ever think of these characters as degraded or less than human – to Americans they are simply helping their customer in the best way they can.

Beraten

The German word beraten means to provide advice about what another person should do. Its root is Rat or counsel. To advise another person also means to enter into discussion with them about a certain topic, situation or problem. A Berater is a consultant.

The original definition of beraten is to take precautionary steps concerning basic human needs: food, shelter and everything which makes up a household. Rat is the root of Hausrat: Haus, house + rat, things, meaning household things.

More terms: Vorrat: Vor, before + rat, things, meaning supplies; Gerät, meaning tools or instruments. Beraten, therefore, focuses on future actions, on what needs to be done. It is future-looking. Beraten means to prepare another person for a possible situation.

Dienen

As is the case with many English terms, the Germans prefer to use the word service instead of dienen. The term dienen can be traced back to the 8th Century, when it meant runner, messenger, serf. Dienen in today‘s German means to serve, to be helpful, to be useful.

Dienen, however, also implies – and this is what Germans hear – subjugation, to place oneself below the person being served. Germans feel a loss of independence, personal sovereignty, autonomy, when dienen involves focus on the individual needs and wishes of the other person.

In such situations Germans sees themselves almost as slaves, as imprisoned, as unfree. They feel that their free will has been put on hold in order to serve the free will of the other. They no longer have the say over themselves.

Dienen, though, can have a positive meaning in the German context – namely when individuals freely choose to serve a common purpose, which is to the benefit of all, a greater good.

This all gives us a sense for why Germans avoid using the word dienen and instead prefer the English term service or the German-English combination Kundenservice, literally customer service. Germans have no problem subordinating their freedom when it comes to serving a purpose they believe in: Einer guten Sache dienen.

They do have a problem, however: serving exclusively the needs and desires of another individual. Such phrases as Ihr ergebener Diener, your loyal servant, or stets zu Diensten, at your service, have died out in Germany, and with these phrases the thinking behind them.

“Not the consumers’ job“

Harvard Business Review. October 31, 2001. Tom Davenport, Business Professor at Babson College: Was Steve Jobs a Good Decision Maker?

„He (Jobs) also didn’t believe in analytical decisions based on extensive market research.“ Quoting The New York Times’ obituary: „Mr. Jobs’s own research and intuition, not focus groups, were his guide. When asked what market research went into the iPad, Mr. Jobs replied: ‘None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.’”

Steve Jobs was not of German descent. It was known, however, that he had great respect for German design and technology. He and his family, it was reported, had debated for weeks what brand of washing machine they should choose. His arguments won out. Miele.