Let Me Consult You

I've always pondered the posts I've read in other blogs regarding customer service in Germany. Nearly all are written about negative experiences, whether it be an encounter while shopping, bureaucratic maneuvering or receiving (or perhaps not receiving) 'service' from banks, the deutschebahn, etc. I had posted some time ago that as a general rule my experience had been quite the opposite in Germany and Switzerland. Although it wasn't the style I was used to in the US - the Hey there, can I help you? Nice weather we're having today isn't it? That's a great necklace you have on!, with the transactions happening in the background kind of service - people here have been for the most part attentive and helpful, language challenges notwithstanding.

In the US, selling is about relationships. I have a few friends and acquaintences in the US who are salespeople. They did not become the top salesman through their passion for the product; quite the opposite usually. They have an unbelievable ability to BS with anyone who comes their way, while the deep experts on the subject are kept tucked away in the office, lab, etc.

Once these top salespeople establish a relationship, selling the product and closing the deal follow somewhat naturally. And once the deal is made, Americans tend to stay loyal with a company or product based on the person who is selling it to them. Likewise they may switch to another company or product if their point of contact moves on. I can think of one hairdresser I followed from salon to salon, four in total, before I finally moved away. There were other great hairdressers at the first salon, but I knew him and trusted him.

An even better example of the strength of the relationship in US sales is the number of top salespeople who get hired for their existing clientele. Such is the importance of the relationship that the existing clientele are more likely to switch to a new product than a new salesperson with the same product. Sure there are a lot of generalizations here but more or less this is how it is in the US.

So what is the deal in Germany with all this bad customer service? Some of the stories are truly horrible customer service stories, I cannot deny. However, I think there is a fundamental difference in how selling works in Germany. Selling here has nothing to do with the relationship, especially not at first.

Germans despise artificial friendliness and superficial relationships. Relationships here are based on spending a long time, sometimes years, getting to know each other and sharing your life stories and experiences. They are much less likely to be based on a common interest but are built on the friendship and loyalty itself. You would be extremely unlikely to go to a bar in Germany, sit down for a beer and find your new best friend by the end of the night, unless they were another expat or tourist. If you are selling, you will never be able to charm your way into a quick sale. The very act of trying to charm would not only discredit you it would make a German customer completely uncomfortable.

So what sells in Germany?

'Let me consult you.'

That very simple phrase is what sells in Germany. Behind every consultation are years of schooling, myriads of philosophies and theories, certificates and degrees and practical training. In a nutshell, expertise and credentials sell.

I found it strange at first, during my first weekend in Europe, that the saleslady in the shoe store knew about every shoe extensively, where it came from, who made it, when the model was released, the care products should be applied to this shoe, how to store and maintain them, what could be replaced or repaired, what warranty was available and how to precisely fit each said shoe to my feet. I like the service but I thought perhaps she had a shoe fetish.

Other instances followed. We went mattress shopping and after a two hour 'fitting and consultation' we knew exactly which 5000(!) euro frame and mattress we should buy, as well as what settings of the frame we needed to precisely align to the curvature of our neck, spine, hips and knees. This was no finger in the air assessment. There was a device to measure the precise 'solution' (another German word for anything you may want to buy) for us. At 5000 euro we created a diversion and quickly bolted out the store. It made me miss going to a mattress store in the US, bouncing around on a few beds and declaring one mine, back health be damned.

There were also the health insurance salesman who came to our house and consulted us for an hour, my hairdresser constantly admonishing me for my frightful or non-existant make up application and suggesting we schedule a make up consultation, the banker who set up my bank account and is now asking me to come in for a consultation on getting some interest applied to my money and many more.

I find it all kind of funny and from time to time get the giggles on the serious nature of conducting business in Germany. Let's take the painter for example. We have 3 rooms, a hallway and a bathroom in our flat, all very average sized. We want two walls painted a dark color, the rest will be a tint or light color. I would expect this is a fairly standard painting situation. We had a German painter expert come to consult us. He measured the entire house, discussed colors with us, assessed all the walls and told us he would give us an estimate in a week. A week?! A week to determine the exact quadrat meters of the walls, the number of liters of paint and drops of paint color needed to paint each wall, grams of plaster needed to repair holes, drying time based on average humidity during this time of year and the resulting cost of product and workmanship to paint our house. I seriously doubt that the results of the painting job would be anything other than perfection. Also likely around 2000 euro but the supercomputer is still crunching the numbers so we wait.

At the same time I brought in a general handyman (a non-German, I know, I'm a rebel) who quickly assessed the apartment, gave us an estimate and also discussed some other projects he could help us out with including some cabinet and lighting work. No self-respecting German would ever hire the handyman who dared to claim proficiency in so many areas. Meanwhile I was trying to imagine what a typical day at paint school was like and for how many years you had to go and what it cost. Plastering 101. Textured Walls Lab. Senior Seminar - Ceilings. Today, ladies and gentleman, we are covering the many fascinating shades of beige. And to think I've painted a couple apartments all on my own with no training whatsoever and just wanted someone to do the tedious work for me this time!

There is a cost associated with all this expertise. Outside the exchange rate, I think things are cheaper in the US because you do not have to factor in all this schooling and sophisicated theory and consulation behind every purchase here. Any friendly idiot can sell you whatever you want. You are pretty much on your own though with what you get and what happens next.

There is a value to consultation and expertise. If you want an expert opinion and don't want to spend hours researching yourself you will always find a one hour summary here. I am also impressed with the quality of work and have been happy with the purchases I have made after I have been consulted. I hardly ever have buyer's remorse anymore. Think BMW quality and apply it to your hiking boots, your watch, the painting of your walls and you get the idea of what is expected out of every sale in Germany. In the end I can't conclude whether relationship based sales or expertise based sales and their corresponding costs are better. It just depends but if you are in doubt...let someone consult you.

Posted from Munich


aimee said...

i miss these types of posts. your writing on the differences between the us and germany are hilarious.

the focus on experience and specialization reminds me of small towns in the south (of the us), though. when i was growing up, everyone had a specialization. we still went to cobblers, didn't buy our shoes at large department stores but rather small, local shoe stores where they actually fit your foot and worked with leather, thereby stretching as needed to accomodate oddities in your foot shape.

that's what i loved about italy. you didn't buy fruit at the grocery...you went to the fruit lady and afterward, headed to the butcher for meats and olives, etc. sure made you stop and smell the roses even if you didn't want to.

if you're looking for a bed, we've loved the westin heavenly bed. they won't "fit you" though. one size fits all. :-)

Megan said...

Very interesting. During our delegation prep, a related topic became clear to me for the first time: That Germans lay little value on marketing and advertising, investing heavily in R&D instead and then letting the quality of their products speak for themselves. And that just as Americans (among others) will invest a significantly larger amount of their resources into marketing and advertising to sell their products, they also put much more effort into building relationships and giving good customer service to clinch the sales.

One is all about the product (quality) and one is really all about everything around the product (packaging, ads, service, relationships)

And then when you start to think about how quickly an American will call you friend, and how long it takes for a German to do the same, you start to see how many of these dots connect in each culture. You can also begin to see why they can find us to be superficial, and why we often see them as so straightforward and serious...

Good post, food for dinner conversation.

Michelle said...

Hi Aimee and Megan,

Thanks for the nice comments - I thought this one might be too long for anyone to bother with !

Gardner said...

very great assessment and comparison. I made it almost all the way through.

Expat Traveler said...

I loved this post also and you know you are so right..

Welcome to the US where a job is as disposable as a babies diaper! If you aren't satisfied move on, and usually into a different field..

You see the way people do business is different. Taking your time and doing things with precision actually makes for people not to return things because of bad mistakes, rushing and poor judgment...

Be happy you deal with it because I deal with the opposite, a quick fix, let me be ungrateful because you can't give me an answer today.

But don't worry, I'll call and stalk you 3 times a day because well... that's the way we do business here. And hurry up now, it's your fault..

I'll trade life in Europe any day.. Even if it is slower.. At least you won't die young from a quick fix.