German trade shows are the place to be if you want to learn about the latest technologies, update yourself on international market trends, and meet potential business partners from all over the world. According to the Association of the German Trade Fair Industry (AUMA), around two-thirds of the world’s leading trade fairs take place in Germany. Every year, around 150 international trade fairs and exhibitions are hosted in the very heart of Europe, attended by 180,000 exhibitors and around 10 million visitors (Riemhofer 2017). Very often, visiting one of the shows is the very first step companies would take to explore the German/European market, and it is quite likely that even your first visit to Germany is taking place in this context.
Very often, trade fair participants are in awe when they visit a show in Germany for the first time; they are not only impressed by the size, but also the professionalism. Here are a few examples of some of the top events:
The world’s most important motor show, the IAA, has a long history; the first show took place in 1897 at a hotel in Berlin. Since 1951, the bi-annual event has been hosted in Frankfurt. Although the 2017 event saw a decline in both visitors and exhibitors, the organizer, Verband der Automobilindustrie e.V. (VDA), could still count “around 1,000” exhibitors from 39 countries (1,103 in 2015) and approximately 810,000 visitors (a fall of 13 percent as compared with the last event). The show offered nearly 200,000 square meters of exhibition space (approximately 2.2 million square feet). IAA 2017 hosted 363 innovations, including 228 world premieres—according to the organizer, both figures are new records (Verband der Automobilindustrie e.V. (VDA) 2017).
bauma is the leading platform for experts who deal with construction and building-material machines, construction vehicles, construction equipment, and mining machines; the Munich show is held every three years. In 2016, the show covered more than 605 square meters (6.5 million square feet), and 3,425 exhibitors and 583,736 visitors attended the event (Messe München GmbH n.d.). I was very impressed when I visited bauma CONEXPO INDIA 2015, but was overwhelmed when I entered the Munich fairground in 2016 to meet the company I assisted in selling their concrete flooring machines during the German show.
AGRITECHNICA is the leading trade fair for agricultural machinery. The bi-annual show, which covers 23 halls, lasts for seven days; the event in 2017 set the stage for 2,802 exhibitors from 52 countries. More than 457,000 visitors attended the event, with 24 percent being international guests from altogether 128 countries (DLG Service GmbH n.d.).
Even more international and famous is HANNOVER MESSE. As a tradition, the Chancellor inaugurates this annual show for industrial technology; Germans can follow the opening event on the news. Every year, a partner country is featured in the show.
An event that is also extensively covered by (almost) all German media channels is the annual book fair, Frankfurter Buchmesse (FBM). In 2018, more than 7,500 exhibitors were present at the show (Frankfurter Buchmesse GmbH 2018). FBM is not only an exhibition—it is, by far, the best networking opportunity in the industry.
If you are into computer and video games, don’t miss gamescom in Cologne; launched only 10 years ago, the 2018 show attracted 370,000 visitors from 114 countries, including 31,200 trade visitors (Taylor 2018).
As with everything in life, nothing is carved in stone. For example, one of the biggest shows, CeBIT (now CEBIT), has recently been undergoing a re-launch due to its shifting (or adjusting) focus. This global event for digital business, from 2018 onward, takes place in June, rather than March. To make sure you do not miss such important information, you should sign-up for newsletters that will keep you updated and follow the events on social media channels.
If you want to know which event best suits your needs, the free-of-charge AUMA trade fair online database is a good starting point for your research: https://auma.de/en/exhibit/find-your-exhibitions (click on “Advanced search”). I recommend that you run your search by industry or using (predefined) industry search terms. The events in the search results marked with an “int” are international events, meaning that a minimum of 10 percent are foreign exhibitors and at least five percent of the trade visitors are from abroad.
For example, if you are from the electronics industry, you might want to consider participating in electronica in Munich. The database presents all the relevant information such as when the next event will be taking place, who is organizing it, and what the main product groups are. You will also find certified key figures on the exhibition hall size (in square meters) and the number of visitors and exhibitors (domestic and foreign) at past events. If you want to know where the visitors have been coming from, this is where you will find the numbers. As an exhibitor, please keep in mind that trade fairs generally do not count “unique visitors,” but the number of entries; meaning that people who visited the fair on both days would have been counted twice. If—as a visitor—you are especially looking for products “Made in Germany,” you might be interested to know that, in 2016, 964 local exhibitors had registered for electronica. However, these figures include German distributors of international brands and international companies that had registered their booth via their German branch office.
This data is certified by FKM—the Society of Voluntary Control of Fair and Exhibition Statistics. In the FKM Trade Visitors Profile section (which is further down on the same page), you can also find information on the economic sectors that the visitors represent, the size of their companies/organizations, and their areas of responsibility—to give you just a few examples. The data can (also) be relevant for visitors because these figures are a good indicator of the extent to which they “fit into the picture.” Very few German organizers do not support the work of AUMA to the “usual extent” (as they put it) (AUMA 2015); hence, when looking up their events, you will find very limited information (e.g., Frankfurter Buchmesse, IAA, and ACHEMA).
Let me also give you some very hands-on advice: as a visitor, don’t forget to make sure you get access to the show. Many shows limit entrance to trade visitors only. In most cases, you don’t have to prove that you are a relevant visitor, but if, for example, you want to attend the world’s largest trade show for the sports business, ISPO MUNICH, you need a written proof of a business relationship with one of the exhibitors or an invitation issued by one of them to enter the halls. Similarly, Spielwarenmesse strictly limits fairground access to people who can prove they are professionally dealing with toys. It is always advisable to check the event websites and affiliated offers in advance.
Organizers constantly improve the tools they make available to the visitors; in most cases, you will find an extensive online exhibitor list, along with detailed search criteria that reflect the industry, as well as the search parameters that a visitor might use. In the weeks leading up to an event, the exhibitor databases are normally updated daily with the present state of bookings. When deciding whether or not you should visit a show, find out what the official deadline is for exhibitors to register; it may still be too early to get a good idea of who is going to be there.
Very often, trade show apps for mobile devices are offered; see whether you can synchronize the favorites that you have highlighted in the exhibitor list with the mobile application. Some shows offer a matchmaking tool that helps you network with relevant trade show participants. And, no matter how well prepared I am, when I arrive at a show, I always grab a hall plan or one of the handy trade show guides, offered for free at the entrance, for quick reference. If you cannot find the print media available, ask for it at one of the information counters that you will usually find in the halls.
For one Indian gentleman living in Canada, the greatest challenges when visiting fairs in Germany are finding a hotel close to the venue and getting tasty food at the show. If you need plenty of sleep and don’t like using crowded trains and buses, make your arrangements early and be ready to pay a fat premium for your accommodation. If you cannot operate without a proper, tasty, yummy, spicy lunch, the bad news is …you won’t survive. Better stay home or—as a last resort—bring your stock of chutney or chili sauce to drown whatever you get at the fair. If you are vegan, very often you will have the choice between trying to explain the concept to the staff at the snack counters (with a crowd of hungry, impatient people at your back) and hoping that they have at least a tomato and lettuce leaf left for you … or nothing. According to my superficial knowledge in that area, buns and pretzels very often contain eggs or other animal products, so don’t fall for that well-meant offer; better look out for some fruit and nuts. If you need to find a prayer room, or fancy buying a five-foot tall Philodendron, or even a 65-inch Ultra HD Smart OLED TV at the show, that’s probably much easier than not having to compromise on food!
Keep in mind that, if a fair lasts for three days, the second day is typically the most frequented; if the show is from Tuesday to Friday, expect Wednesday and Thursday to be very busy. Some would recommend that you should show up early on the first day because stand staff is “hungrier” then. On Friday, exhibitors might be more casual and relaxed, and you shouldn’t be surprised if some start packing up and leaving Friday early afternoon—a very bad habit indeed! If you visit Frankfurter Buchmesse, try to wrap up your work by Friday afternoon—on Saturday and Sunday, the show is flooded with private visitors.
Don’t leave applying for your visa to the last minute; remember that the trade fair organizer will also need time to issue your invitation letter or any other needed document; make sure you keep yourself informed regarding these requirements.
When packing your briefcase, remember to carry only the bare necessities; typically, it should hold your entry ticket, business cards, notepad and pen, a small bottle that you can refill with water from the tap if you like (tap water is superb in most German cities), maybe headache pills, blister plaster, and last but not least, your paper or digital battle plan. Also, don’t forget that, depending on where you got your device from, you will need a plug adapter to charge your phone or laptop. Even if restaurants and the on-site supermarkets accept credit cards, having at least 20 euros in your pocket for minor expenses will help. If you want to leave the premises to have a quick bite outside the fairground, make sure you’ll be granted re-entry before leaving.
Remember that Germans love rules, and if you (also) consider their guidelines important and follow them (please!), they’ll love you even more. Plus, I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble! Finding the best way to bend the rules and create a bypass is not a virtue admired in Germany. Don’t try to skip the line at the box office, don’t try to smuggle your friend onto the premises, don’t try to talk staff into letting you access the fair before it officially starts, don’t smoke in the washrooms (go outside and dispose of your cigarette butts in the ashtrays placed outside the halls), don’t bring your own food to the restaurant, and so on.
And, please also keep in mind this rule: generally, you are not allowed to take pictures or shoot videos of exhibits and stands on the exhibition grounds unless you have first asked the exhibitor for permission to do so, and the exhibitor has explicitly granted such permission; you may even need approval from the organizer. An unsolicited “snapshot” taken at an industrial goods show can easily lead to a heavy fine. Exhibitors do not appreciate having their new developments being exposed to the spotlight.
Some time ago, when I had a discussion with one of my clients regarding how we could keep track of the appointments to take place at his booth during a very busy annual fair in Germany (we were both scheduling meetings, and my concern was to avoid double-bookings), my client suggested that there was no need to synchronize our agendas because, according to him, we could always let one person wait for 10 minutes or so (limiting the conversation with the other prospect to 10 minutes?!). Not the greatest of ideas, if you ask me … especially when dealing with Germans. My standard German reaction as a visitor put on hold would be: “Are you kidding me?,” “Am I not welcome?,” or “How can I rely on you if you cannot even get your schedule straight?”
In his book, Erfolgreich akquirieren auf Messen, which deals with how to successfully win clients during trade shows, German Sales Trainer Dirk Kreuter uses a very pointed picture to indicate what a person (over here typically) would be feeling when you make him or her wait. The man in the line drawing is checking his wristwatch; from his facial expression and body language displayed, you can sense that he is under a lot of pressure. A TNT bomb with a lit fuse in the thought bubble completes the picture (Kreuter 2014, p. 145). No matter if it is during a trade show or on the occasion of your visiting clients and prospects during a business trip through Germany, please keep in mind that Germans put great emphasis on scheduling their work, and being late or letting somebody else wait would leave a very bad first impression.
Hasan Syed advises that you should always arrive on time for a meeting or gathering. “Do not plan things less than one week in advance,” he says. “Ideally, give it at least two weeks, or longer. Over here, I have meetings scheduled for five months in the future in my calendar, which I never had in London.”
As Germans tend to be very task-oriented, it is recommended to prepare (especially) well. Know who you will be talking to and what subjects you want to cover. If you promised a product demonstration, make sure all is set accordingly; for example, better inquire in advance whether there is a Wi-Fi-connection for visitors if you want to showcase your SaaS solution. Don’t forget to carry the necessary adapters to plug in your laptop (power sockets are type F, the standard voltage is 230 V, and the standard frequency is 50 Hz). Respect your counterpart’s time schedule—most likely, he or she will have blocked only the amount of time you have agreed upon when you scheduled the appointment.
But, who should you try to schedule the meeting with in the first place? For example, when you want to arrange for a sales meeting, should you contact the specialist buyer (for the items that you offer) or the head of purchasing? I am happy that I had the opportunity to discuss this and some related topics with a proven expert, German Sales Trainer and Business Coach Achim Borse; “There can only be one target person—the decision maker,” was Borse’s answer to this question. In his experience, however, most people would bank on someone in the company who holds a position comparable to their own, someone they consider to be their counterpart on the customer’s side. A field sales professional, for instance, will often contact a buyer at the target company. Why? “Because we are in the habit of doing so,” Borse explained to me. “Habits, however, are not the decisive criteria when choosing a point of entry for prospecting!”
For Borse, “decision maker” is the person with the power to say yes to your proposal; this person presides over the budget and decides how the funds are allocated. He elaborated that decision makers can have different titles and functions; “They do not necessarily have to be on the executive board of a corporation or be the CEO of a firm. What counts is who provides the budget for your proposal.” Who holds this position can vary from company to company; for Borse, it is vital to determine who this person is because “with anybody else you speak to, their decision will depend on the budget; with the decision maker, the budget depends on their decision.” So, don’t be shy about cold calling someone high(er than you) on the corporate ladder; you can still bring your superior along when you have managed to arrange a meeting.
It cannot be emphasized too often that Germans (overall) are very task-oriented. That concept might be more difficult for you to deal with when you are from a country where people normally put more emphasis on relationships, or where you would assume that things never go as planned anyway. Here, when you request a meeting, let people know what’s in it for them. Some time ago, a businessman from Brazil asked me if I could arrange some meetings for him; he was coming to Germany for an exhibition and had researched the names of three university professors in the area. I asked him, “What should the meetings be about?” He told me that he just wanted to visit the lecturers at their faculties. I tried to rephrase my question; “What should I tell them about the purpose of your visit?” His reply was: “Purpose? All I want is to visit them!” OK, another attempt: “What is it you want to discuss with them?” Now Eduardo seemed really frustrated; “I just want to visit them!”
When you ask a (mainstream) German, especially when you have not met him or her before, to dedicate time to talk to you, please keep in mind that, for us, time is a resource. Once a moment is gone, it’s gone; it won’t come back. Not in this life, and certainly not in another. Normally, we do one thing at a time. We focus and concentrate to get a task done, think about a problem, or enjoy time with our friends and family. When a German agrees to meet you in a business context, please remember that his or her reasoning most probably will be: “I am investing my time; therefore, I want to know what is in it for me.” Showing up without an agenda, without having researched the needs of your counterpart, and expecting them to spend some hours with you “just to get to know each other” does hardly work in Germany. In the worst-case scenario, the German will perceive your behavior as unprofessional and disrespectful.
As Syed pointed out, you should book your appointments in time. What “in time” means depends heavily on the industry and the people you want to talk to. Regarding German publishers exhibiting at the Frankfurter Buchmesse in October, in my experience, contacting them in August is a good time. If you look at analytica in Munich, the world’s largest trade fair for the laboratory technology, analysis, and biotechnology sectors, two months before the show might be far too late; exhibitors in that industry at least are used to planning everything well in advance. Executives attending ISPO MUNICH or other annual shows might be more flexible and willing to “squeeze you in” on short notice.
When scheduling a business trip, keep in mind that most offices in Germany are either closed during Christmas and New Year (December 24 to January 1) or operate on skeleton staff, and that during the summer, many people are on holiday, sometimes for up to three weeks in a row. Visiting companies during the months of June, July, and August can be a good opportunity to find people in an agreeable, rather relaxed mood; however, there’s also a fair chance that half the company will be on holiday, and people will be reluctant to agree to see you because not all relevant colleagues are there to join the meeting. Therefore, better keep yourself informed about public and school holidays in the federal states that you want to visit. And, remember that Saturday is not a working day in Germany; many companies also close early on Fridays. While I, as a freelancer, sometimes meet foreign visitors on a Saturday, only on very rare occasions do I accept any meetings for Sundays. Sunday is sacred to (most) Germans, irrespective of whether or not they go to church. When talking to decision makers in the manufacturing industries or in trade, it may happen that you are offered a meeting as early as 8 a.m.; especially in the manufacturing industry, many are reluctant to miss their (around 10 o’clock) breakfast break. With other industries, you can assume that office hours are generally from nine to five, and that people want to go for lunch sometime between 12 and 1 o’clock.
If you manage to arrange for a meeting at around 11 a.m., you can perhaps suggest having lunch together. If it is your first encounter with the company, or you are in the early stages of your client relationship, you might be invited to join the team at the canteen or for a bite at a down-to-earth restaurant in the neighborhood. If a manager (someone who can probably easily get a refund from Accounting for entertaining visitors) sits at the table, chances are you will be invited. If you can lunch with “only” some of the lower-ranking staff, it would be a nice gesture to ask if you may take care of the bill.
Don’t forget to tip five–10 percent; not more, as that might be perceived as pretentious. Waiters receive a (basic) salary and do not live off their tips, as might be the case in your country. If you are using your credit card (which you should not assume is possible everywhere!), you would add the tip amount when signing the slip or leave some silver coins on the table. If you pay cash, just tell the waiter or waitress to round it up. For example, when the bill sums up to 46 euros and the service was okay, tell the waiter, “50, please.” If in doubt, and your guests already know what you will pay, you can always ask them what they recommend as an appropriate tip. By the way, in Germany, it is common to also tip cab drivers and bartenders, and most of the time, people would also leave a small coin or two (maybe 50 eurocents) for the janitor or cleaning staff at a public convenience or restaurant toilet.
When arranging your meetings, consider using all available channels such as the telephone, e-mail, matchmaking tools (as often offered for trade shows), and social media. However, take care that your approach complies with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a directive that requires businesses to protect the personal data and privacy of EU citizens for transactions that occur within EU member states. Make sure people can research you and your enterprise to double-check who is contacting them. Be present and active on LinkedIn and maybe even XING, the German pendant. Publish a professional portrait as your profile picture—sunglasses and scanned passport pictures are taboo! And don’t forget to keep your website up to date.
Make your written communication personal (if possible, address the recipient by name) and individual (do not suppose that “one template fits all”). Give your e-mail a meaningful subject line and always mention the purpose of your attempt to get in touch; for example, what is the intended result of a meeting? Try to be very clear and to the point. Unless you (already) know the person, write in a matter-of-fact, formal style (not flowery and prose-y). Submit flawless sales collaterals that are well structured; do not attach eight MB presentations or 20 product pictures. Put the most important keywords at the beginning of the subject line, as you don’t know how many characters will be displayed in the preview of the recipient’s e-mail program.
It never leaves a good impression if one can see that a lot of copy and pasting has been done. When you compile your e-mail by recycling old messages, first copy the text fragments into a .txt file, and from there, transfer the result into your mail program so that only one font is used. Avoid exclamation marks and smileys; place emphasis on orthography and punctuation.
Keep it short and avoid pointing out the obvious or coming across as superficial. Try to put yourself in your recipient’s shoes and see whether he or she is likely to think “so what?!” after reading a few lines of your message. Take this, for example, “With a huge production capacity at an attractive price, we assure our clients of our best services.” So what?! Better: “I have gone through your website and, from what I can see, you must be purchasing a substantial number of xyz items per year. Making no compromises on quality, we have recently developed a product that is 5 percent less costly than the average product available in the market and offers some added benefits such as … We would like to introduce the xyz component and explain its advantages to you or one of your colleagues who will be present at Anuga in Cologne next month.”
Even if you want to introduce your range of products and services, do not copy and paste your entire portfolio; rather, try to very briefly explain what your key competencies are or what specific topics you would like to discuss. Don’t present yourselves as “the leading company” unless you are from Alibaba Group, Gazprom, or maybe Coca-Cola. For a German, who is not used to these kinds of hollow superlatives (as we most probably would perceive them), this claim will instantly undermine your credibility.
When you give someone a call, try to explain who you are very briefly (in the sense, what your company is offering that you assume your contact might need). “This is Robin! I am calling from Abu Dhabi!” is not a suitable introduction. Also, do not repeatedly say “Hello, hello…” when the other person picks up. Some of my Indian clients have that habit, and I would assume that I am not the only one to find it very confusing because, in Germany, nobody does that. It’s better to say “can you hear me?” if the connection is bad. When Germans pick up the phone, they usually answer by stating their last name, and if at work, the company name. When I call someone, I would typically say, “Good morning / good afternoon, this is Andra Riemhofer from so-and-so company.” Speak slowly, try to avoid an accent, and listen carefully. A German would often find background sounds like street noise or loud chatter annoying; try to shut out any such disturbing commotion.
After the phone call, it can be a good idea to send a follow-up e-mail, confirming the time and place of your meeting, for example. On this occasion, you can share your mobile number, for any eventuality (“Für alle Fälle”). Be careful when sending invitations from Outlook, and so on—the time difference might mess up your schedule; make sure there is no confusion about the day you want to visit. Better confirm “October 11” than, for example, 10/11, because Germans are used to first mentioning the day and then the month (11.10.), and could mistakenly expect you only on November 10. And, since we are on the topic, Germans do not use the a.m./p.m. system; better add “in the morning,” “in the afternoon,” or “in the evening” when telling time.
Consider hiring a local person to help you with research and setting up appointments; my experience is that Germans are more likely to get involved in a brief conversation if they are called from a local number and if the person calling knows the language and business culture. Recently, having me on board for meetings with German contacts tremendously helped a delegation from Finland to confirm (more) meetings. Without the prospect of a German-speaking person to “jump in” in case of (potential) language difficulties, some contacts had initially refused to agree to meet the foreign visitors. Also, please remember that, in Germany, we don’t have this habit of re-confirming the meeting one or two days in advance (unless that procedure is specifically agreed upon, or maybe a strike, volcanic eruption, or blizzard has challenged your travel plans). I tend to recommend to my clients that it is better not to re-confirm. Firstly, it could confuse people, and secondly, your prospect might take the opportunity to cancel the meeting at short notice (for example, if something of higher priority has come up in the meantime).
What else should you consider when traveling to Germany for doing business? Senior Business Development Manager Stephan Janouch drew my attention to the fact that, although most Germans should know enough English to provide directions or engage in a short conversation, and while comprehension of the English language might be above average on a global scale (particularly within companies that are conducting business internationally), there are two things that are ignored quite frequently: firstly, he highlights what you can subsume under the heading reading is not talking. “A lot of people do have an excellent English vocabulary and understanding of the English language, but feel uncomfortable when they are forced to engage in a live conversation,” he explains. “In many cases, this results from a lack of practice.” As an example, he mentions the average engineer who is used to reading datasheets, specifications, or conference papers, which are typically available only in English. “He or she may not have issues verbalizing facts in written form but could easily find it challenging when asked to do real-time interpreting,” Janouch warns.
I can totally relate to what he is saying. I did my A-levels in English and German (at the time, we had to major in two subjects), and during my undergraduate studies, scored high in the written Business English tests. I was not very used to speaking English, because at school and in higher education, little emphasis is put on oral communication. When I, at the age of 25, went to India for an internship, and my family there recommended that I should call the managing director to confirm that I would actually show up on October 1 (my flight had been scheduled for only a few days after 9/11, so the request made sense to me), I postponed the call for days; I was so afraid the publisher would instantly send me back when he heard my bad English! So, don’t be surprised to maybe find the person you have been communicating with easily via e-mail being comparatively sparing with words when you finally meet him or her face-to-face.
Secondly, the business development manager points out that, in many cases, the vocabulary of German English speakers is limited to two categories—the basic set of words, grammar, and semantics you learn in school and the specialized terminology according to one’s profession. Between these usually lies a gap that contains a lot of the subtleties and idioms of English language which may result in a misunderstanding (bad) or miscommunication (dangerous). One should bear in mind that, although both languages are similar in many ways, there are words a typical German would have difficulty understanding (e.g., the term “evangelizing”). There are words with a completely unrelated translation—a German would be able to relate to roentgen rays (Röntgenstrahlen) but maybe not to X-rays—and there are similar sounding words with a completely different meaning. Take, for example, the German word “eventuell,” which should be translated as “possibly,” rather than “eventually;” a German could easily decode a “we will eventually reach a conclusion” as “we will maybe reach a conclusion.” I remember how I, as a 12-year-old, told my English teacher’s mom (an elderly lady from Great Britain) that I was afraid to meet her; “afraid” just sounded so similar to the very polite “erfreut” (pleased, delighted).
Today, I sometimes still get confused by “you must not,” which if you translate it into German word by word, means that you don’t need to (do something). If a German tells you that you must not do something, and you wonder how this could make sense (e.g., “you must not reconfirm our meeting”), better ask him or her to explain or rephrase. Janouch highly recommends understanding how proficient your counterpart is in speaking English and adapt accordingly.
During the meeting, stay matter-of-fact, stick to the agreed agenda, and at the end, (try to) conclude any talks or agreement with a wrap-up. Largely lacking a “hands on, can do” mentality, Germans are (otherwise) sometimes easily tempted to postpone decisions, wishing to (again) review certain aspects of a matter and discuss them at length with xyz party. A wrap-up that you can, for example, title “Next Steps” can help speed things up a bit. Choose your words carefully so that you are not perceived as pushy. Offer to compile a written protocol and ask who you should e-mail it to (preferably the decision maker).
When you finally sit at the table, let your counterpart also talk, even if he or she is not as fluent as you would have hoped for! No matter how much time you have spent preparing the perfect sales pitch, if you do not let the other person participate in the conversation, he or she might feel frustrated and chances are you will never find out exactly what they need.
When asked for the best possible (sales) strategy, Achim Borse replied: “The one, sacred approach doesn’t exist. However, all prospecting approaches should share a common structure.” His main piece of advice: “Stop selling—in the sense of overselling—and you’ll be instantly more successful.” He explained to me that, when you talk too much in the opening stages of a conversation, without putting forth questions to the customers, without engaging them actively in the exchange, and without allowing them to talk, and not (properly) listening to them, you’ll be giving them the impression that you are trying to con them into a purchase. “And that is what people nowadays can’t stand anymore,” he concluded. “We are dealing with self-confident, autonomous customers.” His advice: “Start replacing your statements with questions. Masters of prospecting are masters at asking questions—not at argumentation.” So, before you start presenting your solution, don’t forget to (first) inquire about your prospective clients’ need(s); you can try to refer to your audiences’ specific problems when delivering the presentation.
My cousin Arjun Sachdev, whose company represents German publishers looking to sell their online databases in India, has observed that “in most cases, Germans, in terms of business, are very to-the-point and upfront.” Apart from them normally not being very warm in terms of business dealings (as compared to people in India, for example), he has experienced that, in a business context “Germans prefer to hear the practical opportunity rather than the ideal opportunity.” You should “hence, always be honest and back your talk with facts and figures.”
Yes, I would agree with that. Always keep in mind that problem-focused Germans are eager to hear about concrete solutions (rather than visionary ideas that we would most readily label “dream castles”). Therefore, you should highlight your expertise in solving problems and try to give examples, and mention references. I recommend that, when you talk about reference clients, instead of (or maybe in addition to) displaying the logos of the usual suspects in your presentation (depending on your industry, these can be big market players such as BMW, SAP, or Springer-Verlag), you should talk about how you have helped specialized businesses of comparable size (to your target client) solve specific problems. However, don’t forget to ask your reference customer(s) for permission first! And, be prepared to be told that your target clients’ problems are not at all comparable, or at least, are much more complex and challenging.
It can be a good idea to position yourself as a consultant (who helps solve problems), rather than to present yourself as a service provider: looking at cross-cultural communication and its potential pitfalls, John Otto Magee, an independent consultant who advises global companies on cross-border collaborations, has observed that “Germans respond positively to American customer-orientation. But that friendliness and responsiveness must be backed up by a solution to a problem.” He, in his article Business Mentality: Germans Consult, Americans Serve, advises that, when dealing with Germans, one should avoid the terms “serve” and “service” at first, and talk about “consulting” instead. “German customers might hear ‘serve’ as a substitute for real and proven knowledge and expertise.” In his article, which mainly targets business people from the United States, he concludes that one should also “try [to] stay detached and even distant from the customer as a person, to depersonalize the relationship and remain an outsider lending his expertise to a specific problem.” As an American (however, that could apply to people from many other countries, as well), one “should delve earlier than [your] instincts suggest into the complex and critical issues and start asking penetrating questions right away.” Magee warns that “[o]therwise the Germans will think [you] either do not grasp problems in their complexity or do not dare to address them” (Magee 2018a).
Present yourself as competent, knowledgeable, and open. As a thumb rule, your presentation should be well structured and factual, with well-documented sources, and not have too much “blah blah;” that means avoid superfluous talk and try to get to the point quickly.
Very often, it is recommendable to add a conclusive summary and suggest next steps/present an action plan. It would be better not to place too much emphasis on humor, as is sometimes the case with Anglo-Saxon presentations. If you present in English, and there is no simultaneous translation, speak slowly and clearly, without too much of an accent. (Some) jokes or allegories might not translate; for the same reason, be careful when using idioms and sports phrases. For example, do not expect us to know what a ballpark figure is, or what it means to be far out in left field. Be clear up-front about how you want to run the presentation and make well-defined recommendations, but at the same time, give space for discussion at the end. “Don’t be afraid of having a contrary view to seniors or the majority,” Manoj Barve from India adds, “so long as you can defend it. And, no ‘thank you’ slide, please!” Thank you, Manoj!
When a German asks a question, try to give an answer. If you have not understood the question (or find it stupid), do not evade the question or change the subject. It’s better to ask the other person to kindly rephrase the question. If you’re still in doubt regarding what he or she is unclear about, you can say, “That is indeed an interesting question.” Pause and look as if you are contemplating your answer. Germans are not used to this kind of silence and chances are you will get more input. You can always proceed with “if I got you right, you are saying that …” or “In my experience ...,” and see whether you’re heading in the right direction. If you (still) cannot answer the question, tell the enquirer that you honestly don’t know, but that you will find out and get back to him or her later (don’t forget to actually do that!). A German will most likely be satisfied with that answer.
Considering the style of presentation, I am hesitant to tell you what the best possible solution is; I honestly doubt there is one best way. However, I would suggest that a good approach is to keep in mind the core values and practices introduced in this text (such as Germans’ task orientation, sticking to an agenda and timeline, not getting too emotional, and so on), while at the same time, not denying yourself. Maybe your way of mixing facts and figures with a good storyline and your unique way of talking to an audience will be perceived as exceptionally refreshing and engaging. Professor for International Management Daniel Ittstein has observed that the presentation style in Germany has (anyway) changed fundamentally over the last five years. He recommends concentrating on a good storyline and being visual and authentic.
A good storyline, at least for me, can still be on how you were challenged by a problem, how you maybe struggled at first to find a solution, and then how you finally came up with what you present today. Because, in Germany, we do not particularly believe in superheroes, it (generally) couldn’t harm to talk not only about strengths, but also about weaknesses; sharing insights about how you (initially) struggled or failed will emphasize the complexity of the problem and make you more credible and trustworthy.
While you should consider the use of other/additional media, apart from PowerPoint or Flipchart, I recommend that you think twice before playing your five- to seven-minute corporate video, even if watching the film makes your own heart beat faster. You are here to discuss business and get to know the other person(s). If the video helps to explain certain concepts or capacities, know which part of the film you need to play to make your point; if the spectator senses that watching the film will hardly promote findings—and the time could be otherwise used more profitably—he or she might feel annoyed.
Try to engage the audience. As an icebreaker, you could, for example, ask your listeners to assess something; that can be a year (when something was invented) or you can let them guess the number of xyz items that are sold in your home market in an average year. I once listened to a German publishing professional who, at a conference, shared her story of how she had reinvented schoolbooks for gardening apprentices; as an introduction to her presentation, she asked the audience to close their eyes and imagine they were members of her target group. In an almost hypnotic tone, she went on to tell us that we were 15 years old and had just left school with not-so-good marks … While initially feeling slightly uncomfortable, I quickly got hooked by her presentation. However, be careful to not surprise your audience too much or bring them too far beyond their comfort zone.
When you showcase the features of a software program or SaaS solution, you can ask the audience what tasks you should execute first; for example, let them decide whether you should run a search by “x” or “y” parameters, or ask them the criteria according to which you should sort/compile the data. Under no circumstances should you just reel off your demonstration.
Be careful how you comment on your audiences’ contributions, and make sure you don’t come off as being superficial or patronizing. “A big round of applause for Ms. Meier for knowing the year of the French Revolution” might make Ms. Meier feel as if she is in kindergarten again! This reminds me of an episode Consultant Alexander Wurz shared with me; when all the Germans, at the end of a presentation, knocked on the tables (which means “thank you for the presentation”), and the French speaker was so irritated and shocked that he left the room; he perceived the knocking as a very negative sign.
Wurz recommended that I should, when talking about presentations, also mention the relevance of the untranslatable German word “nachvollziehen.” The term means a lot more than just “understanding” (what you are saying). Your (German) audience should always be able to “nachvollziehen” your line of thought, that is, comprehend where you are coming from and how you reached your conclusion(s)—what data you are relating to, what thoughts you had, maybe what pros and cons you weighed, which sources you used, what the (possible) consequences are (e.g., of implementing a solution)—so that the listeners can integrate/bring your idea in line with what they already know / their world view / their specific challenges. Be prepared to be asked how you reached your conclusion/solution, and don’t respond to the question with a “Why are you bothered? Just be happy it works!” attitude.
“Expect to be challenged,” Sue De’Ath warns, and “don’t wing it,” as a German business professional working in the United States admonishes. “Germans have a comparably long attention span,” adds a German who currently lives and works in the United Kingdom; according to him, we can easily digest (aren’t we rather hungry for?) lots of facts and figures. Be prepared to be confronted with all possible questions. “Der Teufel steckt im Detail” (the devil is in the details), a German would typically comment, when he or she is under the impression that something has not been thoroughly thought through. Germans almost unconsciously examine things for hidden problems; planning must consider all eventualities.
Ruben A. Hernandez, in his book Presenting Across Cultures, explains:
Germans will also listen critically, scanning your talk for inconsistencies and errors or for exceptions to any claim you may make. They generally feel uncomfortable with partial truths, believing that, if something is not 100 percent true, then it cannot be true at all. (Hernandez 2013, p. 75)
If any inconsistency or inaccuracies are perceived, be prepared for them to be pointed out. I once feared running into a major credibility problem when I was presenting the results of an advertising copy test; one of the engineers who had joined my client’s marketing team seriously confronted me with the question of how the results of our survey could be trusted when we, as a publishing house, could not even master punctuation rules (a comma was missing in the introduction!). The head of marketing was signaling to me that everything was under control, rolling her eyes heavenward … however, knowing that I had at least one listener who would not mind spoiling my presentation by highlighting even minor flaws made the experience less than enjoyable.
Magee explains that Germans tend to separate message from messenger: “A German presenter consciously moves into the background so that the content can take center stage.” According to common (German) understanding, arguments should speak for themselves. “German speakers strive to be factual, analytical, scientific,” Magee elaborates. “This often makes them appear objective, impersonal, and colorless. They display little body language and stay behind the podium or to the side. Content takes center stage.” In his experience, Americans do the opposite: “They link message and messenger.” Content, form, and presenter should form a unity: “Sell yourself first, then your product or service.” So, Americans get personal and anecdotal, with personal color and plenty of gesticulation. For those not familiar with this style, he recommends going to YouTube and studying Steve Ballmer on stage in his Microsoft days. Well, that style, at least to me, feels somewhat odd indeed, and I didn’t watch only the “going crazy on stage” clip. Obviously, I am not alone: Germans, Magee explains, react ambivalently to this linking of message and messenger: “While listening, they whisper to each other: ‘If his case is so strong, why is he putting on such a ridiculous show?’ or ‘Typical American. All show, no substance. We’ll take him down when we get to Q&A.’” Yet, some of the Germans, according to Magee, “secretly think: ‘Wow. Uninhibited. Natural. Believes in himself. Getting me to believe. Wish we Germans were allowed to do the same’” (Magee 2018b).
Well, even when I have said before that you should not deny yourself, I would still recommend trying to follow a slightly more “conservative” approach (as compared to Ballmer), and for the occasion, to dress (more) formally. Depending on the industry, I would prefer to see you wear a jacket, if not a tie as well. As we are on the topic of appearance: if you are used to carrying a rucksack, please double-check that it is still in good shape. Leather bags may have some patina, while shoes really should not reveal their advanced age! Avoid extensive use of aftershave and (no offence) make sure your clothes do not smell of naphthalene. Women should also use only discreet perfumes, and avoid flashy makeup and jewelry. Business women over here generally prefer to “dress down” and would rarely wear high-heeled stilettos or figure-accentuating (short) outfits. Men are used to seeing their female colleagues in trouser suits or knee-length pencil skirts. I am not telling you that, as a woman, you should mimic the local, more “functional” style; however, you must consider that a very feminine outfit might lead to your potential (German) business partner perceiving you as less professional than you actually are. But, if being underestimated is your preferred strategy, ignore what I have just said.
When adapting presentations and sales collaterals to the German market, pick your language provider carefully, and under no circumstances, use Google Translate. Also, it would be better not to blindly trust a local language provider who says that he or she is working with a German native. And, do not let anybody who is not familiar with the industry translate your spec sheets and brochures. It would be useful to keep in mind that translations from English to German, as a thumb rule, require 1.3 times more space than the original text. Adapt the metrics (e.g., square meters instead of square feet) and preferably convert prices into euros. Keep in mind that most people in Europe may have never heard of “crore” and “lakh,” and might find it difficult to think in terms of gallons, yards, or inches.
When designing your PowerPoint presentation or sales collaterals, do not use meaningless icons or low-resolution pictures, and consider cutting down on flashy colors. Use good-quality paper for your brochures and focus on the message you want to convey. Be careful with green letters on a red background or vice versa (I have seen that!); about 8 percent of men are red–green color blind in one way or another.
If, at a trade fair, your goal is to present new products, the attention needs to be directed to the products. You need to display the items in an attractive and prominent way and highlight the product’s advantages. Shipping the goods back and forth might be expensive, but only displaying a poster of what you intend to sell won’t do the job. What you can showcase on a poster are product specifications and advantages. Don’t forget that, if you are not yet renowned in the market, you very often first need to convince people that the items on display are more than just cheap copies. A friend of mine purchases electromechanical components; he says that, for him, it is crucial that he can weigh the parts he is considering in his hands … to be able to touch and feel the goods. You should be prepared to answer his detailed questions to his full satisfaction. Like most Germans, he would expect to communicate with international exhibitors in English.
What else should you keep in mind when meeting Germans face-to-face? Be aware that cross-cultural body language can easily be misinterpreted; so, if you feel like the person listening to you looks confused, you can try meta-communication. For example, you can say: “You don’t seem to agree? Please tell me if I said or did something to confuse you.”
Also, keep in mind that Germans generally prefer a bit more personal space than people in South America or Greece, for example. When the German at your table readjusts his or her chair during your product demonstration, moving it a bit farther afield from where you are sitting, do not try to regain proximity; your listener—being used to keeping others at a greater distance—might start feeling very uncomfortable. If you are from the United States, you might experience just the opposite and feel that Germans come way too close. Better avoid touching the other person’s arm or other parts of the body when talking. Don’t slap a German on the shoulder unless you already know him very well. When it comes to women, avoid this habit completely.
When you meet people (only) virtually, the challenges can be of a different nature, and one could write a separate book on that topic alone. Munich-based Trainer Gudrun Höhne, an expert in the fields of global communication and virtual teams, currently authors such a guidebook and allowed me a sneak preview of her manuscript. Here are some basic principles that she advises you should follow:
Her first (standard) piece of advice concerns the technical part of the communication via Skype, WebEx, and comparable solutions. If you have received a meeting link from your (German) business partner, better check the link beforehand and make sure that your firewall settings do not generate any technical problems. While such technical pitfalls can always happen, I would assume that Germans are generally less tolerant of those not having taken standard precautions. If, however, you send the meeting link, make sure that an agenda is attached to your invitation, and inform the recipients of how they can check the technical settings. If the scheduled timeslot allows for some buffer, you may mention in the agenda that, according to your planning, the presentation should (as an example) take half an hour, and that another 15 minutes are allocated for Q&A.
Check the position of your webcam before going online, and make sure that you have a professional, neutral background. I remember the embarrassment I felt during a Skype job interview some years ago, and how I tried to discreetly move my laptop so that the other person wouldn’t see bits of the ironing board stored behind a closet at my back. Höhne advises that you should dress professionally, as for a normal business meeting or presentation, and avoid wearing shirts with small patterns because this consumes too much Internet bandwidth.
You should take care that you are in a quiet environment, and that there are no disturbances; close the windows and doors, mute your phone, and redirect incoming calls to voicemail. According to her recommendations, you should also double-check that you have a stable Internet connection. Join the meeting at least five minutes before the official start to ensure everything is set up correctly.
“Germans expect you to be in the meeting on time,” Höhne points out. “Start with small talk but keep it a bit shorter than usual because Germans like to focus on the subject at hand.” She also suggests that you talk slowly and clearly, avoid slang, and unless you can converse in German, keep in mind that you are not talking to native speakers.
When sharing your screen, and before you proceed with your demonstration, you should ask your audience whether they can see whatever you want them to see (only that and not more); allow for a time delay. It is recommendable to summarize and visualize important points (you can use the service’s whiteboard feature, for example), and ask for comments and feedback to check your audiences’ understanding. With larger groups, it is best to have a co-moderator and also use the chat for communication in the meeting.
Let me close by sharing a story one of my German friends related to me when we were discussing international calls: where he works, there is a regular (like weekly or monthly) online meeting with colleagues and representatives working in the United States. Obviously, he explained, the meetings are always held in English. “One day, but only after 10–15 minutes, we realized that actually, no American was present in the call. We could easily have held the meeting in German.” However, my friend continued, “the managing director, who was in his flow and couldn’t easily adapt to new circumstances, stuck to his procedure and continued in his (improvable) English, going through the meeting points exactly as they were listed on his paper.” Don’t tell me I haven’t warned you enough …
When it comes to discussing definite business opportunities, how you want to handle the situation will depend on your branch of trade and the common (international) business practices in your industry. The way in which tenders are prepared and contracts are awarded in the insurance industry may differ from the way they are handled in the construction or fast-moving consumer goods industries; the terms of payment you can negotiate may depend not only on your company’s credit rating, but also on the economic strength and political stability of your home country. What I can offer you are some basic principles that should help you to put yourself in a good position, no matter what the specific opportunity is.
Regardless of whether you send or receive a request for proposal (RFP), use the occasion to (again) establish yourself as serious and trustworthy (“in German terms”), and keep in mind that your client or supplier would want to use their time effectively (how Germans generally consider “time” has been explained in Chapter 5).
When submitting a request for quotation (RFQ), make sure to send all the required information and leave as little room for queries as possible; however, highlight the areas in which you want your supplier to make suggestions. Don’t let your enquiry look like a bulk mail unless you operate in a distinct buyers’ market. In some cases, it can be a good idea to give a (reasonable!) target price. Formal and polite communication will help you build a rapport. If people enjoy communicating with you, they are more likely to go the extra mile. If demand is higher than supply, being agreeable and reliable (“zuverlässig”) will help you tap and nurture sources.
When receiving an inquiry, you can briefly confirm receipt and let the sender know by when he or she can expect your quotation. Calling the sender to double-check on certain positions in the RFQ can be a good idea (to also give your business relationship a more personal touch); however, do not ask nonsense questions. If you cannot meet the deadline mentioned in the inquiry, ask your (potential) client whether they can extend it to a certain time.
Throughout my career, both as an employed sales person and now as a freelancer, I have had good experiences with being transparent with my German clients: When I know that I can’t meet a deadline or target price, or cannot submit a quote for other reasons, I let the other person know. Some years ago, when I was representing a company from the Gulf region, we received an invitation to quote for a very attractive, high-volume project that put dollar signs in our eyes. Our German prospect was a re-seller, meaning, he needed our quote to calculate and submit a quote to his client. Looking at the technical specifications of the discussed project and the special strengths and matching capacities of the supplier I was representing, everything looked good; however, knowing that the ultimate buyer would want us to handle material displaying pictures of scantily clad (to say the least) women, I advised the Gulf company to first double-check the feasibility of the proposed project. “No problem, we surely can handle the job,” was their initial answer. “Don’t worry,” was the second reply. “Let us first win the project, and then we’ll figure it all out,” I was told when I still insisted (eager not to put my reputation at risk). Only after I had asked the German prospect to send some sample images taken from a former project did we discover that, under my client’s country’s legislation, it was prohibited (!) to do such a job and that we could never have fulfilled the order. Imagine the situation, had the German prospect been awarded the project based on our pricing! The German client was disappointed about the fact that we couldn’t quote, but very much appreciated us being transparent on the matter. We soon got another chance from him!
There is another lesson to learn from this story: Don’t say “no problem” to a German if there is a problem, because when we answer a question with “no problem!,” we most probably mean “no problem!” As outlined in Chapter 4, Germans tend to take words literally and are not well trained in reading between the lines or understanding vague hints.
For example, many Germans who have not yet spoken much to business contacts from India will take a “no problem” from them literally. “Can we get a 50 percent discount?”—“No problem (we will deduct 50 percent);” “Will you be visiting Germany again soon?”—“No problem (we can shortly fix a meeting).” For those who have already done business in India, the “no problem”—I sadly must say—is a big red rag. Very often, Germans would have taken their business partners literally, and are now convinced that Indians promise everything under the sun and are not reliable at all. Better replace “no problem” with “I see,” “uh huh,” or “interesting,” and when there is a problem, just tell us!
When you receive the first RFQ from a potential buyer, don’t get too excited; Germans are not exactly famous for making quick decisions. Very often, they are interested in identifying a second source, but will only buy from you (for the first time) when their current supplier lets them down. Letting you quote could be a means of getting to know you better, just in case! Keep that in mind while you do your best to leave a good (first) impression. Very often, you would initially be awarded only a smaller project, which, in my experience, is a very good starting point. If you handle the small job properly, bigger ones may follow. I mention that because my international clients sometimes seem disappointed when I proudly present an initial RFQ that does not exactly match their stretched goals in terms of sales volume.
You can easily spoil the deal at the very early stages by disregarding some details that might not seem especially important to you, but are crucial when it comes to what Germans generally consider proper business practices. Call us “picky,” but when we receive an e-mail, PDF-quote, or other business communication displaying a pixelated company logo, we can quickly conclude that the sender is somewhat sloppy in everything he or she does, including fulfilling our order. If you use a predefined form to submit your quote, and there is blank space captioned “company name,” put the recipient’s address in it; do not write “miscellaneous.”
Make sure you get the names right (if your keyboard doesn’t offer a “ü,” then address Mr. Müller as Mr. Mueller; same with “ä”—“ae,” “ö”—“oe,” and “ß”—“ss”). Also, take care to get the spaces (e.g., after the punctuation) right. I don’t think great harm is done if you mistakenly address Thomas Müller as Mr. Thomas; however, as a thumb rule, try to remember that the last (mentioned) name is the family name and that you address people with the formal “Mr.” or “Ms.” and add that last name (unless you are already on a first-name basis).
In case you are in doubt about certain specifications in the inquiry, it’s better to double-check, rather than just quote something. If you cannot comply with some requirements, and would like to offer an (in your eyes, at least) even better alternative, highlight the parts where your quote does not match the requirements. Do not let things go unmentioned; if the RFQ reads “shrink wrapped” and you lack the machine, do not just leave out the wrapping and packing part.
All documents must appear well structured, so if your proposal consists of more than one or two pages, it is a good idea to paginate them. When submitting several documents, help the receiver sort them out by attaching an index of what is what. Conclude the quote by inviting the receiver to respond to you in case there are questions, and display your contact details visibly. “Hope the above is clear and of interest for you. Looking forward to hear from you” (as copied from a proposal I once reviewed) might come across as too casual, if not outright sloppy.
Be careful with abbreviations (unless they’re very common ones in international trade and your respective industry) and provide a deadline until when the quote is valid. You can also use that to speed things up a bit and put gentle pressure on your (prospective) client.
I advise my clients to submit their quotes as PDF attachments preferably; this way, the recipient can easily print and forward the document, and the formatting will not get messed up. Better make sure that whatever digital documents you submit, they do not vary too much from our standard letter-format DIN A4 (210 × 297 mm). To learn more about common norms and standards, please refer to the website of the German Institute for Standardization (www.din.de/en).
Even with small things (as outlined), leave no room for doubt that one can rely on you 100 percent. Germans tend to consider each and every decision very carefully; do not expect them to act spontaneously or “just try something out.” Many a time, you need a lot of staying power if you want to gain a presence in the market. Even if they do not buy from you now, keep in touch and try to meet them at the next industry event or during a business trip. Invite them to your offices, write a Christmas card, ask them whether they want to receive your newsletter, and keep them updated about new products and special offers; but under no circumstances should you spam their inbox by repeatedly sending follow-up mails.
Always keep in mind that Germans, in general terms, are very process-oriented and risk-averse. I once had a client from the United States who found it hard to digest that she, during the initial stages of discussion with a German head of marketing regarding a potential collaboration, was confronted with questions like: “Suppose we decide to work together, let us assume that, in two years, our company gets taken over; how would that event affect § 4.2 of our agreement?” My client made several attempts to explain that one should get started on working together and need not be concerned about eventualities before they materialize. Even if you feel annoyed by such an infatuation with detail, or in case you do not have an answer to that question, keep in mind that Germans are truly concerned with many eventualities that, in their thinking, might need to be considered. Don’t give us the feeling that you don’t care about our concerns. The point mentioned might turn out to be totally irrelevant (even to the German), but showing us that you (also) care will earn you many brownie points. “Good point, we will double-check with the legal department; however, that might take some time,” was what I said.
When a German is ready to take your business relationship to the next level, he or she will most likely explicitly tell you and expects the same from you. Some years ago, I supported a Swedish company exhibiting their machines at a trade show. Upfront, the managing director had briefed me about the three most important German target customers. Already being aware that our Nordic neighbors sometimes come across as even less emotional than we (watch the Danish crime show Forbrydelsen, and in contrast, any episode of the German Tatort will feel like Italian opera), I wasn’t surprised to see my client with what I (still) thought was supposed to be a poker face when one of the prospects showed up. Both gentlemen engaged (in fluent English) in discussing a business opportunity, including what steps to take next. In the meanwhile, I attended to other visitors, and having watched the greater part of the talk from a distance, it looked to me as if the German appeared somehow unsatisfied when he left. I asked the exhibitor whether there had been any problems and if anything did not go as expected. The Swede seemed puzzled, “Why? It looks like he’ll be buying, doesn’t it?” The funny thing was that, after a few minutes, the German returned and explicitly (also) asked whether he had missed something, if everything was alright, and if he could (still) expect to receive whatever my client had held out in prospect.
Germans tend to need clarity, be it (about) a “yes” or “no.” Business Consultant John Otto Magee, in his article Lost in Translation—German Directness, American Euphemisms: The Hell of Cross-Cultural Communication, explains what can happen when a German doesn’t get a “no,” and what can cause such a situation in the first place:
[T]he American no comes in the form of a conditional yes signaling the reasons why assistance is regretfully not possible. To Americans it is a sign of professionalism and finesse to communicate rejection in a positive, supportive, affirmative way. This is not easy for Germans to decipher. Germans want clarity. But a no in the form of a conditional yes sends mixed signals.
The resulting misunderstandings can get ugly. Germans may think they have an agreement, whereas the Americans communicated no such thing. Germans will then conclude that the Americans are unzuverlässig (unreliable). Even on minor matters, to be unzuverlässig is a character flaw in Germany. Unzuverlässig is a label which can take a painfully long time to have peeled off your forehead. (Magee 2018b)
When discussing a deal with Germans, make an effort to be as transparent and unambiguous as possible (although I don’t mean that you should put all your cards on the table). First, establish what the subject and objective of the negotiations are. Ensure that your counterpart is the right person, with the authority to make a deal. If things are complex, agree on the procedure first before you address the subject matter; an agreement on procedures can be confidence-building and facilitate the subsequent negotiations.
A marketing executive from France told me that, when dealing with Germans, she prepares the negotiation in the same way as with persons from other countries, “except that I give more explanations and background information. I do the small talk after the negotiation and, with other nations, before the negotiation; I don’t add emotional components in the negotiations.”
Germans tend to prepare themselves to the smallest detail before a negotiation or a conversation, and expect the same from others. They will take their time to analyze each and every aspect of a decision before they agree to something. It is considered a good idea to gather a lot of background information, including on your prospective business partner. In Achim Borse’s experience (he coaches companies on these matters), negotiations are then conducted quickly, fairly, and without detours. “Unforeseen last-minute changes are not welcome,” he says.
Senior Project Manager Hasan Syed advises that you should talk about the advantages and disadvantages (of a proposal) as you would list them in bullet points on paper. “Be straightforward and discuss the limitations of the current offer. If you have a real, viable reason for why it needs to be negotiated up or down, it will happen,” he says.
Almost all parties I interviewed mentioned that you should not get emotional, stay factual and to-the-point, and that you shouldn’t offer irrelevant information. Be prepared to hear an explicit “no,” but don’t take it personally. The Germans at the table would share a common understanding that you negotiate about a matter, and that it’s not about people or relationships. We tend to quite clearly separate those spheres. “Be prepared, know your numbers, focus on interests,” as Professor for International Management Daniel Ittstein would summarize.
Be clear about the transactional value and stick to it. Don’t start with a too high and unrealistic price because this is seen as unprofessional and unfair. Germans don’t like a carpet market approach and show respect for their partners in the negotiations with a fair deal. “They usually have one goal with perhaps, at maximum, one alternative, and they go for this goal and nothing else,” the German CEO of a company located in India explained to me. “So there is no fooling around.” According to the C-level executive, trying to find alternatives that aren’t exactly matching the Germans’ expectations are often considered a waste of time. “Germans want to have exactly this for that price and want to know by when they can get it. Right on the money,” he said.
If, on the other hand, you make yourself understood that this is it, and if you are determined about your position, you can also leave an impression, he explains. “I am not too sure if our way of doing things is well received in countries where there is more room for negotiation, and where, by cultural background, the parties enjoy bargaining,” he adds. “For Germans, it’s often just a waste of time to negotiate from 100 to 20; they prefer to start at 30 or 25 to negotiate to the final price of 20.” Not every German is as reflective; Intercultural Leadership Trainer Andreas Hauser, on another occasion, commented on how “Germans are often quite convinced that their way is the correct, and sometimes only, way forward to deal with an issue or solve a matter.” It might be helpful for you to keep that in mind when you would (normally) expect more flexibility from the person you are dealing with.
Last, but not least, travel author Cal O Cal warns that you will be expected to have all the answers. “Germans are very security-conscious people. They need to have all the boxes checked before committing to anything. Be precise. 1.99 US dollars in Germany is 1.99 US dollars, not 1.99 US dollars plus other things.” After all, Borse would add, “for Germans, a contract is ‘law.’ As it is in the contract, it is implemented. Therefore, from a German point of view, all details must be clarified before signing the contract.” Do not (try to) renegotiate on already agreed terms, and keep your side of the bargain!
Do I have any tips on how to make a German move a little bit? Try being silent. Silence is often perceived as very unpleasant, and it is likely that the other party will start making concessions just to change the situation. But psst! Don’t tell anybody I told you so.