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.

Not Your Bitch

In 2009, author Neil Gaiman, who was born in England but has lived in the US since 1992, wrote a blogpost titled Entitlement Issues. In it he discusses a letter he received from a fan of the author George R R Martin, who complained that it seemed like Martin wasn’t spending enough time working on his latest novel.

Gaiman comments on how readers tend to think that, once they spend money on one of the books in a series, the author no longer has the right to do anything other than write the next one. 

At one point he writes “you’re complaining about George doing other things than writing the books you want to read as if your buying the first book in the series was a contract with him: that you would hand over your ten dollars, and George for his part would spend every waking hour until the series was done, writing the rest of the books for you.”

The English-American author also attempts to convince readers that authors are not obligated to fulfill their readers’ every wish, saying, “George R R Martin is not your bitch.”

Public Apologies

In America, celebrities are often considered suppliers, and their fans customers. Anytime celebrities make mistakes or behave in ways which don’t meet their fans’ expectations, they are expected to immediately issue formal apologies. Some of the more recent examples include:

Lance Armstrong – issued a public apology after admitting to using drugs to win the Tour de France seven times. Justin Bieber – issued a public apology after a video surfaced, in which the pop star told a racist joke. Reese Witherspoon – issued a public apology after being arrested for disorderly conduct.

Orient

Task: An assigned piece of work often to be finished within a certain time; something hard or unpleasant that has to be done; duty, function, subjection to adverse criticism, reprimand.

Job: A piece of work; a small miscellaneous piece of work undertaken on order at a stated rate; the object or material on which work is being done; something produced by or as if by work; something that has to be done; a specific duty, role, or function.

Orient: To cause to face or point toward the east; to set or arrange in any determinate position especially in relation to the points of the compass; to ascertain the bearings of; to set right by adjusting to facts or principles; to acquaint with the existing situation or environment; to direct toward the interests of a particular group.

Listening to Customers

Many companies implement customer suggestions when those suggestions challenge the company’s core principles. In response to customer suggestions for a less cluttered store, Walmart cut its total inventory by 15% and renovated stores to feel less cluttered. The changes resulted in immediate decreases in sales that totaled $1.85 billion dollars before Walmart reverted to its previous model of a much wider selection of products at low cost.

A leading manufacturer of bathroom fixtures is perhaps the most traditional example of a company that must collaborate with and understand the needs of its customers. It must constantly innovate and improve its products with its current and prospective customers in mind.

To this end, the company says: “To the customer, it can seem like each faucet was made with them in mind. We listen closely to what consumers want and need, invest in extensive research and design, and apply smart technological solutions that really do make our customers’ lives easier.” In other words, the how of their innovation process is largely defined by their customers.

In a major US-based international construction company, each of its projects is unique and requires a high degree of collaboration and dialogue with the customer. According to the company’s website, “We work with our clients as a team. Mutual respect provides the foundation for our success.”

Customers expect companies to listen to their input about how a project should look or be completed and create a plan in line with those expectations. The construction company’s website summarizes this idea by emphasizing the importance of finding solutions to their customers’ demands: “We are proactive in finding solutions for our clients that best achieve their goals.“

Free Goods

Americans are so worried about losing a customer’s business that if a customer is disgruntled and complains about bad service that they’ve received, it is common for the business to offer the customer free goods or vouchers for future service.

Additionally, many businesses have rewards programs or similar systems that allow customers to earn free goods by using a business’s services a certain number of times.

Many restaurants also offer free food to customers. Urbantastebuds.com lists over 400 American restaurants that offer free food to people on their birthdays. Some of the deals on this website include a free root beer float from A&W All American Food, a free breakfast from Mimi’s Café, and free pancakes from IHOP.

The customer is always right

“The customer is always right” is a very common phrase in American business. It was first made popular in the early 20th century when it was used as the slogan for Marshall Field’s Department Store in Chicago and London’s Selfridges Store (founded by American Harry Gordon Selfridge).

Both of these stores became extremely profitable, primarily because they had a reputation for good customer service. As a result, many American businesses have attempted to model their processes on the principle that the customer is always right.

In 1911, in an attempt to promote a local business, the Kansas City Star newspaper included an article about the business owner George E. Scott, saying: “Scott has done in the country what Marshall Field did in Chicago, Wanamaker did in New York and Selfridge in London. In his store he follows the Field rule and assumes that the customer is always right.“

Critical Loyalty

Capable consultants not only provide good advice, but they also denken mit, think with. With the client about solutions, ideas, approaches to implementation. Therein lies the added value. That is why consultants are paid. Mitdenken, thinking with, however, also means thinking independently, including correcting or contradicting the customer.

A good consultant is not an order taker. Instead she knows when to challenge the customer, when to point out what is best for the customer, even when the customer does not recognize it, believe it or want to hear it.

Criticism and critique are in general positive in the German culture. To accept criticism, though, is not easy for anyone. Criticism can be interpreted as disloyalty, even though constructive criticism is in many ways the highest degree of loyalty. Criticism points out dangers, identifies ways to optimize, helps to make difficult decisions.

Germans are a direct people, including how they communicate criticism. But they also see it as their duty, as their responsibility, to point out to their colleagues, boss or customer what does not or will not work. Discreet conversations under four eyes which address critical issues is what capable consultants do. These conversations are a sign of loyalty and trust.

Kritische Loyalität. Literally critical loyalty, or loyalty which voices criticism, which address critical topics.

Do it Yourself

Often German managers would rather complete a certain task themselves instead of passing it on to a team member. Many do repairs in their house, fix their cars, and some sit in their office at home until late into the night.

For those with limited financial resources, doing things yourself might be a question of economics. For others, there is a German reason: they often have a clear picture in their mind of how the final product should look. That they don‘t hand it off to a team member is not a sign of mistrust or lack of confidence.

Instead, Germans are skeptical that the other person will fully understand what is expected. By the time they have explained the task and how the final outcome should look, they most likely will have completed half of the work.

For the team member will create her own picture of the final product. Two pictures of what the work should look like. A dilemma for every customer-supplier relationship.

Clear Picture

When a German customer contacts a potential supplier, he has a clear picture of his needs. And he has informed himself about those suppliers capable of meeting them. The German customer expects the supplier to meet those needs as precisely as possible. The German customer has clarity not only about the what, but also to some extent about the how.

Germans are considered to be rather bureaucratic. Despite all of the laws and regulations, governmental organizations can move quickly, provided that the citizens requesting their assistance are well prepared and can provide all of the necessary information the bureaucracy needs.

What regulations apply? Which requirements need to be met? The ideal citizen is well informed and is clear about what he or she needs, including what rights and obligations he or she has. Governmental bodies typically have a reception area set up whose sole purpose is to assist those citizens who have not done the minimal amount of preparation.

For it is considered impolite, selfish and unprofessional to demand the time of anyone without having first done one’s homework. Opportunity costs are thereby lost. During that time other, well prepared citizens could have been helped. Citizens in Germany can inform themselves of just about everything via the Internet and printed information.

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