by Hermann Kracke
Germany is a country of Monks. Not in the clerical sense but Adrian Monks - the quirky ex-detective title character of the US television crime series suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder with an attention to detail so pronounced that it tends to cripple him socially but also makes him a gifted profiler. It is about that level detail obsession you need to think when entering a business relationship with a German Mittelstand company.
Mittelstand is the common German term for SME - though of small or medium size may still mean fairly big here - so that many of these hidden champions I have characterized on my front page would as well be regarded Mittelstand companies.
Germans like to call them the heart of the national economy because they make up about 99.7% of all German businesses and provide jobs to about 66% of all people employed in the country.
What these often highly specialized family businesses also tend to have in common is a total focus on innovation and product quality.
And it’s that Adrian Monk style striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high efficiency standards in countless R&D departments, engineering offices and workshops which somewhere along the way yields even better performance results of what’s in many cases already been a good product to begin with.
The inner detector
There seems to be something inherent to in the German psyche that is constantly striving for perfection which is both a blessing (if you are a rocket engineer) and a curse for a lot of ordinary people.
Ask the people I coach regularly and you will hear that I can at times also be a real pain in the ass. They would tell you about an otherwise good-natured German guy who, however, never seems to grow tired of pointing out spelling mistakes in written communication, keeps sending reminders on false dates used in reports and will even notice a wrong font or font size used in emails to the customer which do not adequately suit the company’s corporate identity requirements.
It’s not that I tremendously enjoy myself being such a smart-arse all the time but I am, in fact, convinced that all these little things add up and tell your customer something about the way you operate - so that reminding people about such minor details and for as long as it needs to stick - will eventually pay off.
In case you also want to know the true promise of my inner Monk now - my five suggestions on becoming a more detailed oriented service provider.
Five pieces of advice
#1: In Germany you do not just want to get the job done somehow but work diligently and have high standards for the quality of the product you deliver.
If you yourself feel your product or service may not be flawless do not even think of marketing it in Germany. Quality is the single largest basic requirement for doing business here.
#2: Do also pay attention to the way you deliver your good or service though.
From the product design itself to the packaging, the manual that comes along with it to the accompanying email you send or the colors you choose for your internet landing page: What may seem minor, unimportant issues to you at first glance your German business partner will likely notice.
Particularly, when these evoke the impression of carelessness or inaccurateness there is a real threat your customer will jump to the conclusion that your service itself is also poor.
#3: Apply the same detail orientation when preparing your pricing estimates, quotes, project reporting and give a detailed breakup of the activities involved whenever you can.
German managers are not very fond of black box proposals.
If you need some margin of safety because you do not yet know how productive your solution will turn out to be in real life then better add that percentage to your breakup positions instead of just providing one broad statement nobody can really tell what it consists of.
#4: Be specific. Providing (relatively wide) ranges when asked to specify expected effort for upcoming projects is usually not a good idea.
People here often refuse to deal with them (as with any kind of vagueness) as a range cannot be incorporated in a detailed plan and will not work in an Excel spreadsheet either.
Now, this is a tough one as I am also saying in the article linked above that German partners will not change their mind easily again once a plan number has been communicated and is then out there like an anchor reference. That is also true.
The best solution to it from a service provider point of view to me is to take some more time initially than you normally would, do your homework, ask them as many questions as you must to really get a feel - and then make one solid, specific bid.
Rather aim a tad higher here - when you tell me 10 to 20% I will calculate 15% (your range does not compute) if you give me 4 or 5% price increase I’m hearing 5% anyway.
#5: Stronger processes, better controls. Review what you do on a regular basis in any department with the aim to have clear processes in place which your people really understand and which ideally directly add value to your customer’s experience.
Add an extra layer of controls in your projects with German partners. The additional cost that comes with that will be less than the potential damage suffered from bringing faulty products or inferior services to this market.
Teach your people - every day if necessary - that these details and seemingly minor issues do matter and that it is this extra mile mindset which earns respect and trust in Germany, slowly but steadily.