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.

“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.

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.