Customer experience in Germany is extremely different to that in the US or the UK, say. The service environment here is defined both by a mix of personal attitudes and the ability to interact with others. It is also as much a reflection of motivation (or lack thereof) as a result of social tradition and recent history.
Waves of Change
Following the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany, rebuilding and redevelopment was soon accompanied by the first of several so-called waves (Wellen) of opulence, namely that of food (Fresswelle). The clothing wave (Kleidungswelle) followed and as Germany’s wealth was re-established so did accommodation (Wohnungswelle). Further prosperity brought the car (Autowelle), and travel waves (Reisewelle). The German industrial machine powered on; demand for goods increased.
The “elbow” consumer society became firmly established and it is still partly present today. Why concern oneself with fine service when superbly manufactured products are selling? The occasional slump saw well intended but half-hearted attempts at change, yet each upturn of the economy brought a renewed neglect of customers.
And as Germany of the late nineties experienced its telecommunications wave, demand for voice and data transfer boomed. Market forces, unleashed through deregulation and consumer choice, were supported by an abundant supply of goods. But customer-orientation centred solely on price.
The consumer economy
Germany is a country that has been strained by reunification and an economy suffering under central government policies. Although mostly benefitting from the upheavals and pressures of the globalised economy, German exports profit from the Euro but the consumer-driven economy doesn’t.
Consumer confidence has always been influenced by worrisome signals. Job insecurity is driving people to differentiate their expenditures and reducing their willingness to buy. Government through high taxation reduces the Euro in the pocket, creating an even stronger desire for value for money. Economic prudence should not be confused with stinginess.
Furthermore, compared to overseas, the German business society is used to managing scarcity and still tries to limit competition where possible, as the utilities and fuel industries reveal.
Foreigners’ comment often on the topic of service and act accordingly. German customers that are not satisfied with the service they receive tend to moan. Most fail to make their dissatisfaction known, quietly refusing to complain; old suppliers are swapped for new.
Companies suffer narrowing profit, feel the pressure of strong competition, reduce prices and miss many opportunities available through service in the consumer-driven market. Real differentiation from competitors is seldom. Compare local supermarkets; still often scruffy and dull, with minimal space and long queues at the cash till, accompanied by sometimes grumpy, often disinterested staff. Even product packaging fails to inspire.
Recent German history shows continued implementation of production procedures in a manufacturing powerhouse that is legendary. Improvement of repeatable processes with rising standards of precision has turned Germany into the successful export nation of today. A vast and unique trade fair industry has even been developed to present their excellence to the rest of the world.
Highly trained labour builds upon an early tradition where professional status was established already in the Middle Ages. Those entering industry to learn a trade completed their masterpiece (Meisterstück) and became admired and respected. Those who didn’t entered lower paid trades with lower esteem.
Status was even strengthened in Germany when success and a high standard of living achieved by both white-collar employees and blue-collar workers brought the phenomenon of the guest worker (Gastarbeiter). Untrained foreigners undertook many service jobs unwanted by nationals with low status and low pay.
Not learning a trade is considered a weakness. That’s why, for instance, shoe shiners are seldom found on German streets and shop assistants fail still to receive the personal respect they deserve in society.
Service, Status and Psychology
Dienen(to serve) implies a far more antiquated and subversive attitude in the German command language than serve does in English. Germans don’t like serving nor do they seem to like being served. Perhaps they don’t demand high levels of service because they don’t know what it would be like to have it.
Furthermore, the successful Germanic specialisation in repeatable processes proves to be deceptive. A customer is not a repeatable process, the consumer not very predictable.
Peaceful tolerance, logic and rationale belong to German society and perhaps result just as much in the prevention of demand for good service. In this peaceful country, the German is used to having his or her “raison” (Vernunft) appealed to. Hence, if someone stands in a queue, then it’s perhaps reasonable to know it will take a while. And again, doesn’t complain directly.
Optimism for Change
Many, many products and services take much longer to develop in Germany than elsewhere. Examples include credit cards, mobiles, the internet and opening hours. Yet Germans travel far and experience excellent service elsewhere. Many shop just over the border.
People, as the point of contact between products and consumption, define impressions, image, values and corporate culture. Fear not, company policies and mission statements will develop into an understanding that a smile goes a long way. Service as a mind-set could one day be implemented with German perfection. Just imagine.