That Fine Line

By John Magee

Let‘s visit that fine line again, between when to serve the customer – meaning give the customer what they want, have ordered, believe is best for them, even if it is not – and when to consult the customer – meaning to dissuade (persuade against) the customer from what they think is best for them, in order to propose what is actually best.

This fine line is very difficult to walk in any business culture. It is especially difficult to walk it if you are not native to that culture. Carefully developed business relationships can be damaged, or even ruined, within just a few interactions if how to walk this line is not understood.

And it is the case that Germans and Americans define, and thus walk, that line differently. It is not uncommon for Americans to purposely keep their Germans colleagues away from their American customers. Nor is it uncommon the other way around – Germans shielding their German customers from American colleagues.

A true friend

This is not about protecting turf or preventing internal competition. It is based on experience. The German approach to discerning (defining) when to serve and when to consult often does not work in the U.S. The same goes for the American approach in Germany. This should be of no surprise to those readers who work in the German-American business context.

When discussing this very complex subject with my American and German clients I ask them to define what makes for a truly great friend. In the end, the discussion almost always leads to the same statement: „A true friend is someone who will tell you what you need to hear – because it is in your best interest – even if that friend knows that you will not be happy to hear it, and it could damage, or even ruin, your friendship.“

I then ask my clients – German and American colleagues – whether it is any different in your collaboration as colleagues, or in your business relationships with customers or suppliers?

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