New York Times. May 11, 2022. One of America’s greatest stand-up comics. A satirist in the deepest sense. George Carlin. Always critical of his homeland. Its short-comings. Its deceits. For many a true patriotic American.
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.
Germans. Augenhöhe. More consult than serve. Ok, fine. American customers can work with the German approach. Maybe even work better, if the approach is understood by both sides and is applied carefully.
But even if so, it can look and feel to the American customer as if the tail is wagging the dog. The customer is the dog. The German supplier-vendor-consultant is the tail. Germans don’t want to be the tail. Who does? But the American customer is clearly the dog. And that dog doesn’t want to be wagged by its tail, German or any other culture.
In 1975, Gary Dahl, a freelance copywriter, bought several smooth Mexican beach stones and began selling them in the United States as “pet rocks.” But what was initially meant as a joke soon became what Newsweek called “one of the most ridiculously successful marketing schemes ever.”
Within a few months, Dahl had sold over 1.5 million rocks. He was a guest on The Tonight Show, and at one point Gary was selling approximately 6,000 rocks per day.
The reason for his success was largely due to marketing: every pet rock came in a carrying case (with air holes), nestled on a bed of straw. Additionally, the purchase of a pet rock also bought its new owner a manual on the care, feeding, and house training of their new pet. Other factors, especially processes, were of very little importance in driving this pet trend.
Engineering in Germany is prestigious. As a field of study it ranks among the most respected. Germany‘s economy, its sophisticated technical products, rely on an abundance of first-class engineers. More than 20% of all first-year university students major in a technical field.
No other European country has a higher percentage of engineers among the workforce than Germany. Nonetheless, industry and the media constantly warn of decreasing numbers of Germans willing to enter the engineering profession.
In order to attract more women to the engineering sciences, German schools and universities organize so-called Girls Day, hoping to fascinate young women with the prospects of a technical career. Engineers begin their careers with a yearly salary of roughly 45,000 Euros. Graduates in the humanities, in contrast, earn about 31,000 Euros per year.
Because Americans like to upgrade products so often, they have developed interesting ways to dispose of their old products. One such way is in an ice car competition.
In many northern cities in the U.S., there is a tradition that involves driving a car out onto a frozen lake in the middle of winter, and taking bets on when the car will break through the ice when temperatures rise.
The activity became popular in the 1940s when civic groups (such as the Lions Club) realized that putting an old, unused car on the ice and betting on when it would crash through would be a fun competition and a good way to dispose of an old piece of machinery and generate revenue for local cities.
These days, with environmental awareness on the rise, most cities have laws against dumping old cars in lakes. As a result, in cities that continue this tradition, the towns typically remove the engine and transmission, and make sure there are no fluids in the car that might damage the environment. Additionally, the cars are usually tethered to the bank so that they can easily be pulled out of the lake once they break through.
In cities that participate in this tradition, having your car plunge through the ice is considered something of an honor, and it’s not unusual for people to donate their old cars when they want to buy new ones.
“Buy yourself a flatscreen tv!” was the advice given by one German graduate student to the other, after the latter struggled to carry his old television – Röhrenfernseher or cathode ray tube television – up several flights of stairs to his new, smallish, apartment. The old tv is, indeed, just that. Twenty years. It belonged to his grandmother, then to his parents.
This Wunderwerk deutscher Ingenieurskunst – wonder work of German engineering – a term once used ironically by a tv repairman – was built by a renowned German electronics company. Siemens. It continues to work flawlessly.
When the Röhrenfernseher – literally tube far see-er – some day gives up the ghost, it will be replaced by a flatscreen tv. But because the age-old German belief in not throwing anything out which still works applies to this truly durable German household appliance, it could see a few more schweißtreibende Umzüge – sweat-inducing apartment moves.
Reliability in the U.S. also means serviceability. No product is perfect. Service can make up for it. And service is based on a product’s serviceability. After sales service. Should be fast, easy and profitable.
From Ford’s Model T which came with a tool box, all the way to today’s call centers responding 24/7 via 1-800 numbers, to the service trucks on the road, Americans tolerate suboptimal reliability if their concerns are listened to and acted upon.
But wait. Earning profits on a product’s imperfection? The German engineer winces at this. Products should work as developed. The German consumer winces at this. Products should work as promised.
The American comedian Rich Hall, under the stage name Otis Lee Crenshaw, writes and performs country music songs, including one song titled “F_ck Disney.” At one of his concerts, he explained why he wrote the song, saying that “The only way to be noticed is to make something litigious.”
In the song, Otis claims to have been employed by Disney, but was fired for growing a beard. As the song progresses, he says several unpleasant things about the company, and finishes with the words “F_ck you, Disney.”
Crenshaw’s ploy didn’t work – Disney never sued, and Otis remains largely unknown in the United States (although he’s well-known in England).
“I like criticism, but it must be my way.” Mark Twain in his Autobiography
“I don’t mind what the opposition say of me so long as they don’t tell the truth about me. But when they descend to telling the truth about me I consider that this is taking an unfair advantage.” Mark Twain, 1879