“You got it wrong!” – Customer

A very important client. German. Head of a thousand-person engineering organization. I had done nine months of work for it. Dinner at a restaurant. I finally meet him.

Friendly, relaxed, anything but self-important. He had every reason to be formal, intimidating, testing. None of that. All signals were positive. At least those in the first few minutes. Then he picks a fight with me. Verbally, intellectually, of course.

You know, I was against you doing any work for my organization. I think you have it wrong.

ACT 1 – Meeting the man

I was very tired. Had just executed a three-day management workshop. The participants were active, asking good questions, challenging me when it was legitimate, demanding that we go deeper whenever I had hit a nerve.

I try to pack as much into a day as possible, probably overdoing it. My body was still on German time. It was seven p.m. U.S. East Coast. For me it was one o´clock in the morning.

I got out of my rental car, walked across the parking lot, went through the entrance of the restaurant. The cold air hit me hard. Why does it always have to be so frigid in American restaurants, buildings, other public spaces?

I’m in the Southeast of the U.S. It is early summer. Very warm, sunny, the breeze too soft to cool anything or anyone down. Finally I would meet the person whose organization had been giving me work for the last six months.

His company: a major German multinational, which just a few years before had been merged with an American competitor. His organization: a thousand-person engineering organization, with two major locations. One in Germany. The other in the U.S. He is German. I am American.

ACT 2 – “I think you have it wrong.“

The hostess brings me to him. One of those places where you step up to sit at the table. The place was packed, all sorts of ages represented, the music surprisingly not disruptive. I had never met the man, but sure had heard much about him, and was both curious and nervous.

We shook hands. His meaty, firm, dry and warm. The forearm brown and muscular. Mine? A bit pale, thin, but taut. He had a big smile on his face. Friendly, relaxed, anything but self-important.

As the head of a critical engineering organization in a division of one of Germany’s largest and most famous global companies, he had every reason to be formal, intimidating, testing, as if to say me client, ou service provider. Me master, ou slave.

Nope. None of that. All signals were positive. At least those in the first few minutes. Then he picks a fight with me. Verbally, intellectually, of course.

You know, I was against you doing any work for my organization. But my people had reported such good things about you, that I just let you continue working with them. You know, I think it’s all about corporate and not national culture. I think you have it wrong.

ACT 3 – “Your thinking is naíve and superficial.“

Was it a slug to the jaw or pat on the back? Too tired and too unprofessional to control myself, I snapped back that he was the one who has it wrong. And what’s more, your thinking is naive and superficial.“

Now, for those who have little or no experience with Germans, you can’t hit back much harder at a German than to say those kinds of things. It goes to the heart of their self-understanding.

Tired and unprofessional, yes, but unfamiliar with Germans, no. They like to rough it up intellectually, mentally, with ideas. Often on purpose just to test the other person. Again, we had just met. My beer, or was it juice, hadn’t even arrived at the table.

No small talk. No pleasantries. No how is the training going? His organization would shell out a large amount of Euros to me in that first year, and here I was slapping the guy right back.

He ate it up. I did, too. We debated with each other for well over two and a half hours. It went on to be the beginning of a four-year engagement, and an inspiring four-year conversation.

But wait, in our very first meeting, in the very first minutes, we basically said to each other: You got it wrong. Shouldn’t that have killed my consulting engagement, killed the business relationship?

ACT 4 – The customer isn’t king

Germans reject any relationship which even hints at a master-slave relationship. As suppliers, vendors, consultants – call them what you want – Germans want first and foremostly to be treated respectfully.

Seldom are they willing to sacrifice their self-respect, their self-understanding, doing whatever the customer demands, accepting anything the customer throws at them, even if it is profitable to do so. Germans would rather turn away the business. For them, the customer is not a king.

And here’s the flipside of that logic. The German customer doesn’t want a slave. They want an expert with backbone, who focuses on what is best for the customer, even if it involves telling the customer what she or he does not want to hear.

Even if doing that can threaten the business relationship. German customers don‘t see themselves as king. They’re customers. We have a need. You have the expertise. Let’s work together.

And Germans especially respect people who have the ability to dig deep, to drill through the thickest boards as one of their common figures of speech goes. They want to be challenged, their ideas and operating assumptions.

When a German hires someone – whether as an employee or an external service provider – they want that person to know more than they do. It’s implicit in the transaction that there is a gap to be filled, an area where they do not have the knowhow.

During my four-year engagement for this customer I had witnessed on several occasions – and had heard of several other – how he treated folks who did not challenge him, who were not prepared, who kowtowed to him, who did not “stick to their guns.” It wasn’t a very pretty scene.

ACT 5 – We accepted each other

My client’s expertise, and his organization’s, was engineering. But they were a product of two companies which had been merged a few years before – one German, the other American.

My expertise was in explaining where Germans and Americans, who happen to be engineers, diverge in their fundamental thinking, where these divergences could cause them problems, and how to handle them.

So we went into battle with each other during that dinner on a warm American summer evening. My message was clear: A corporation’s culture is deeply imbedded in its national culture. Even if it has become global, it has its roots somewhere, in some country, in some national culture.

He listened, was intrigued, also had good arguments for his point of view. The debate became secondary, however. He had accepted me. And I him.

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