Executive Secretary asked three experts on the region to give their personal guides to doing business in Germany.
The consultant’s view
The founder of Kwintessential, Neil Payne is currently the Managing Director of the company, overseeing global operations. He is also responsible for the management of cultural awareness training in Europe.
Germans are often uneasy with uncertainty, ambiguity and unquantifiable risk. This has become manifest in both social and business spheres. Socially, Germans lean towards conservatism and conformism.
Working in Germany it is possible to notice a heavy emphasis on careful planning, consideration, consultation and consensus. This has developed an appreciation for detail, facts and statistics. Organisation is a means of negating uncertainty and averting risk.
The emphasis on conformity combined with a fear of the unknown makes Germans very apprehensive about risk. Security is guaranteed through risk analysis.
This is achieved through careful deliberation and scrutiny based upon factual evidence as opposed to intuition or ‘gut-feeling’. Written documentation is seen as the safest and most objective medium for analysis. A painstaking review of details ensures all relevant information has been taken into consideration.
Germans value their privacy. Mentally there is a divide between public and private life. As a result, Germans wear a protective shell during office or work hours. Since intimacy is not freely given, this may be interpreted as coldness. However, this is not the case. After a period of time barriers eventually fall allowing for more intimate relationships to develop.
Communication styles in Germany may be perceived as direct, short and to the point. Formality dictates that emotions and unnecessary content do not have a place in conversation.
Firm, brief handshakes are the norm when doing business in Germany. When several people are being introduced take turns to greet each other rather than reaching over someone else’s hands. Avoid shaking hands with one hand in your pocket. When women enter a room it is considered polite for men to stand.
German etiquette requires you to address someone using Herr (Mr.) or Frau (Mrs/Ms) followed by their surname. Only family members and friends use first names. Professional titles should also be used for doctors, academics, etc. Try and establish professional titles prior to any meeting.
When doing business in Germany, remember that punctuality is a serious issue. Business people work hard and are under a lot of pressure. Germans typically plan their time very carefully. It is considered bad etiquette to be late or early as it shows disrespect for peoples’ time.
A common misconception is that the German sense of professionalism and strict protocol when doing business leaves no room for humour. An element of this true in that jokes are not commonplace. Yet Germans, just as much as anyone else, like to laugh and as long as it is appropriate, tasteful and in context then humour is acceptable.
Germans plan ahead but are now becoming a lot more flexible in their approach to last minute issues. Try to book meetings at least 2-3 weeks in advance. This is also applicable if you wish to have lengthy telephone conversations. Meetings are usually held between 11-1 p.m. and 3-5 p.m. Avoid Friday afternoons, the holiday months of July, August and December and any regional festivals.
Meetings are functional, formal and usually stick to a set agenda including start and finish times. The phrase ‘let’s get down to business’ is definitely appropriate for German business meetings as small talk and relationship building are not priorities.
When entering a room the most senior of you should enter first. The most senior German counterpart should be greeted initially before any others present. Wait to be told where to sit. Treat the whole process with great formality.
The Germans will analyse proposals thoroughly. Ensure the information you provide is in written format and presented scientifically. Logical conclusions based on empirical evidence will only normally carry any weight. Remember decisions will not be made on your sales technique or charm but on concrete facts that demonstrate a sound opportunity with minimal risk.
Decisions are made slowly and methodically. Do not try to rush proceedings or apply pressure. If anything, enquire as to areas in which you may be able to furnish them with additional or more specific information. Try and back-up information with insight from personal experience or professional qualifications.
The Assistants’ View
Michael Steffensen is a Management Assistant for the Research & Development department of one of the world-leading companies in the Medical Device & Diagnostics sector. His division is based in Hamburg, Germany and collaborates with other divisions, partners and key customers all over the world.
Maren Cuckson is 45 years old, is married, has two stepchildren and has worked for Technoform in Kassel (a family-owned business with 1,000 employees worldwide on 36 sites) since 2009. Her current job is to cover the back-up office for the President, the 3 Vice-Presidents and the more-or-less retired but still very busy company founder.
Michael: You can never go wrong when you address a new business contact with their last name and academic title if they hold one. In Germany, being on the first-name basis with a person is associated with being informal. It usually takes a long time to be on first-name terms, however with increased international business it gets more common as long as English is your joint communication language.
Maren: In young businesses like advertising and media we usually use first names. In our company we do not use titles. Between direct colleagues we mostly use the informal first name and ‘du’. For superiors we use the the formal version ‘Sie’ title and family name.
Michael: The most common way to dress for business in Germany is business casual. This, of course certainly depends on the sector, level and hierarchy you are working with. On a first meeting with a new business partner or key customer you should always wear formal business dress to show respect and appear professional. Wearing Jeans is unacceptable – unless you know that your business counterpart will be too.
Maren: Our dress code is business wear. I do not like black very much, contrary to the current trend. I am a bit on the classic end of the scale, and not too modern. This doesn’t apply to my female colleagues who are much more modern.
Michael: In Germany, people usually work within their requested and specified working hours. Being “off work” means being off work and Germans cherish their leisure time! If business requires us to work overtime, we are able to compensate by taking time off later. The German people have no sympathy for overtime without compensation. Business is business and leisure is leisure.
Maren: I have always worked a 40-hour week, plus/minus 5 hours and an additional evening, formerly sometimes also attending business weekend events. In my current position our employer trusts us to organise our own work time. Free or spare time shall is agreed with the team. Technoform is a certified work-life-balance employer which enables women to work from home in case of a sick child via internet (a laptop is and mobile phone is provided). Working hours are agreed upon individually but this is not the norm in Germany.
Many Germans travel a long way to their workplace – half an hour to an hour is average, with many traveling even farther. It is still common to work for a company for a long time. Germans tend to stay in their jobs and improve themselves within a company. You often find anniversaries of 10 to 25 years within a company. This is slightly changing with the younger generation more likely to work for 3 to 5 years for one employer and then ‘climb up the ladder’ looking for new challenges.
Michael: Germans are known for their preciseness and accuracy – they do not like unreliability or constant rescheduling. Once an appointment is set there is no need to remind them of the date – you can be certain that your client will appear for the time scheduled even if the scheduling was weeks ago. Closing a deal nowadays requires a written agreement or contract. But once agreed upon verbally, you can rely on that decision.
Maren: In Germany a deal is dependent not just on the personal relationship between purchaser and supplier but on the price and quality. To be competitive a company has to constantly improve innovation.
Michael: Usually entertaining customers or business partners includes taking them for business lunches or dinner to establish a deeper relationship. Anything else can be contrary to the international corruption law and you should be informed well about their regulations when planning something special for entertainment.
Gifting is always a nice gesture that everybody likes, but the same rules apply. Giving gifts is fine for special occasions like getting married or having a baby but to be on the safe side it is better if your gift does not exceed 5 Euros, otherwise it might be rejected as employees in some sectors are instructed to do so.
Maren: Often in Germany business events may be organised for key customers– this could be participating at a special event like going to the Cup Final or in-house activities. For Christmas, gifts are often sent to our customers depending upon their importance. Sending a Christmas card is tradition, too and a typical PA job. Birthday wishes are sent only in very special cases where there is a long-term relationships. Other than this, gifts are not usually accepted and often Christmas gifts are centrally collected in the companies and shared between all staff during the traditional Christmas party.