Consult vs. Serve

This article appeared in the Handelsblatt Global Edition on July 9, 2018.

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.

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.

Germans use the English word “service” constantly. But “service” is not native to the German language. The German equivalent is dienen. In the Middle Ages, dienen was associated with being a messenger, a runner, or a farm laborer. Dienen meant “to be helpful”. But in today’s German dienen has the very negative connotation of service in the sense of servitude, subjugation or subordination.

That’s why Germans today tend to avoid using the German word dienen and prefer the English word “service”. (It stems from the Latin word servitium, which also described the condition of a slave, but that etymology is not obvious to German speakers.) Sometimes Germans even combine a German and an English term: Thus Kundenservice means “customer service”. Some of their concoctions become involuntarily amusing, as with Servicedienstleistung, which translates back into English as “service-service”.

To Americans, by contrast, the English term “service” mainly connotes graciousness, helpfulness and selflessness. It is inherently personal. An American rendering a service will respond to the needs of the customer, and the customer will expect nothing less. But service in American thinking also presumes compensation. Service is thus both personal and commercial. Impersonal service seldom leads to commercial success, whereas personal service without fair compensation is servitude.

Germans holding council

Germans clearly prefer another German word in thinking about their business relationship: beraten. The root is Rat, which means “counsel”. Beraten thus means “to hold council”, or more simply “to consult” or “to advise”. It implies a business relationship that is more balanced in terms of power and respect.

Consulting involves joint planning with the customer. It is a two-way street, whereas serving sounds like a one-way street. Serving is seen by Germans as somewhat degrading and demeaning, as almost unworthy of the educated and skilled.

Germans therefore find some of their American colleagues to be too eager to serve the customer. They don’t like Americans leaping into action at the faintest hint of a request from the customer. From the German perspective, American customers are also unrealistically demanding.

Germans believe that one can command more respect, and thus be more successful, by demonstrating independence, and not instinctively giving the customer what he wants. The customer often does not know what is best for him, so to truly serve him means to maintain your autonomy in order to objectively advise the customer on how to solve his problems. The typical German customer, too, neither respects nor wants a servant; he demands an expert who is willing to infuse the relationship with his expertise.

Some Americans also prefer to see themselves as consulting rather than serving. But they find nothing inherently demeaning or degrading in serving another person. And serving a customer in a business context implicitly involves compensation. Service only becomes degrading (meaning “not worth it”) when the compensation is unfair.

Americans thus look at their German colleagues and see an approach that is not customer-oriented but supplier-oriented: The customer has to orient himself to the supplier. This looks all wrong in American eyes. It implies an imbalance in favor of the supplier. The customer can easily gain the impression that he should be thankful to be served at all. At worst, Americans find the German approach arrogant and unresponsive.

Germans, please listen

When dealing with Americans, Germans should therefore make clear right away that they are focused on serving the needs of their customer. They should signal that they will be willing to listen. Germans should avoid using terms such as “consult” or “advise” at first, and use “service” or “serve” instead. Many Americans would often misunderstand “consulting” as lacking engagement, as not wanting to be involved in the implementation of needed measures, as ducking their responsibility.

Germans should also refrain from asking questions in the initial meetings that are critical, probing or penetrating. A highly analytical conversation, with questions going to the core of the customer’s business, implies an already close business relationship. It could be that your collaboration has not yet reached that stage. The American customer sees herself as managing the relationship, as deciding if and when you reach full collaboration. Americans want to be sure that you have understood their situation, their needs and challenges, before they are willing to accept you as a consultant who serves their needs.

Americans, stay detached

Germans respond positively to American customer-orientation. But that friendliness and responsiveness must be backed up by a solution to a problem. So Americans dealing with Germans should avoid the terms “serve” and “service” at first, and talk about “consulting” instead. German customers might hear “serve” as a substitute for real and proven knowledge and expertise. Americans should also try stay detached and even distant from the customer as a person, to depersonalize the relationship and remain an outsider lending his expertise to a specific problem.

Americans should delve earlier than their instincts suggest into the complex and critical issues and start asking penetrating questions right away. Otherwise the Germans will think the Americans either do not grasp problems in their complexity or do not dare to address them.

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