German Approach

Germans use the word "service" very often and in many different situations. But "service" is not native to the German language. The German equivalent for "service" is "dienen". And the word "dienen" can be traced back as far as the 8th century.

At its root, "dienen" was in connection with "Läufer" (runner), "Bote" (messenger) or "Knecht" (farm laborer or servant). "Dienen" means simply to be helpful or to be useful.

But, it also means (and is often felt by Germans to mean) service in the sense of servitude, subjugation or subordination of one person to another person, to the one served, assisted or helped.

Especially if one is serving exclusively the individual needs, wishes or interests of another person, one can feel a loss of independence and autonomy. One is captive, no longer free.

However, if a common goal or common purpose is being served, something for the good of all, then serving is understood as positive.

This might provide an indication for why contemporary Germans avoid using the term "dienen", and prefer the English word service, or a combination of a German and an English term (e.g. Kundenservice = customer service).

The German term "beraten", on the other hand, means to give someone advice about what they should do. The root is "Rat", which means "counsel".

To "beraten" with another means to discuss and consider together, to hold council on a specific issue, situation or problem. A "Berater" is a consultant.

The original definition of "beraten" means to take precautions, in the sense of food and provisions in a household: "Hausrat" (household things), "Vorrat" (supply, reserve, stock), "Gerät" (tool, utensil, appliance, device).

"Beraten" (to give advice, to consult) is oriented, therefore, towards a future action, something to be done. "Beraten" serves the purpose of preparing someone for a future or possible situation.

American Approach

The English term "service" implies graciousness, helpfulness and to a degree selflessness. To serve is to be humble. Serve stems from the Latin word "servitium", which meant the condition of a slave.

Service, at its roots, involves one person serving another or several. It is inherently personal. The term "service" in the context of American business involves the notion of "servitium" (to respond to the needs of your customer, to serve that customer personally and individually).

But service also anticipates compensation (payment, customer loyalty, growth of the business). Service is both personal and commercial.

They go hand-in-hand. Impersonal service seldom leads to commercial success. Personal service without fair compensation is servitude. And, indeed, some business relationships are so one-sided that the one serving feels more like a slave than a free person.

To consult means to seek advice, to refer to, to take into account, to consider, as one would consult an attorney or a physician. To consult also means to exchange views, to confer. As with service, consult has its roots also in Latin: "consultare", meaning to deliberate, counsel, consult or take counsel.

Moreover, to consult means to advise, to recommend, to suggest, to provide an opinion about what could or should be done in a certain situation or in response to a certain problem. The consultant, therefore, is the expert applying her knowledge and expertise to improve the situation of a customer.

But, essential to consulting a client is understanding their needs, their situation. This is done by first consulting with, meaning listening to that customer.

German View

Germans clearly prefer consulting over serving a customer. Consulting in the sense of imparting your expertise to one who is need of it. The relationship is more balanced in terms of power and respect. Consulting also involves problem solving and planning together with the customer. It is, in a way, a two-way street.

Whereas serving is more of a one-way street. The customer knows what he wants, chooses one who can deliver, then expects the deliverer (runner, messenger) to react as the customer wishes. Serving, therefore, is seen by Germans as a bit degrading, demeaning, a misuse of their skills. Serving is unworthy of the educated and skilled.

Germans can, therefore, find their American colleagues to be too eager to serve the customer in ways which are imbalanced. It can appear to them that Americans jump into action at the faintest sign of a request from the customer. From the German perspective, American customers are sometimes too, or unrealistically, demanding.

Germans believe that one can command more respect, and thus be more successful, by demonstrating more independence, and not instinctively giving the customer what he wants.

In fact, the customer often does not know what is best for him. To truly serve the client means then to maintain your independence and autonomy, in order to objectively advise the customer of how to solve his problems (a consulting approach).

In the end, the German customer neither respects nor wants a servant, but an expert who is willing to place his expertise at the center of the business relationship.

American View

Americans, on the other hand, also prefer consulting versus serving, and this for the same or similar reasons as their German colleagues. However, Americans are more willing than their German counterparts to serve the customer in ways which involve limited elements of consulting. From the American perspective there is nothing inherently demeaning or degrading in serving another person.

And serving a customer in the business context implicitly involves compensation. For an American, serving a customer only becomes degrading (meaning "not worth it") when the compensation is not in an acceptable balance with the work performed.

From the American perspective, the German approach to serve versus consult will not lead to success. It comes across not as customer-oriented, but supplier-oriented. In other words, the customer has to orient himself to the supplier. It implies not a balance in the relationship, but an imbalance in favor of the supplier. The customer can easily gain the impression that he should be thankful to be served by the supplier.

For Americans this is a highly risky approach in the American business context, for customer-orientation is one of the very key success factors in the U.S. economy. The German approach to serve versus consult, therefore, can come across to American customers as simply arrogant and unresponsive to customer demands.

Advice to Germans

Make unmistakably clear to your American clients that you are fully focused on serving their needs. Signal to them that you are listening and responding attentively to their situation and want to help them in any way possible.

Especially in the early stage of your collaboration avoid using the terms "consult", "consulting", "advice" or "advising". Even if you are in fact doing those things, use vocabulary which say "service" and "serving". Consult and consulting can be misinterpreted by an American customer as distanced, not fully engaged, not serving, merely advising, and not involved in the implementation of needed measures.

In your initial meetings with your American client it will be your natural tendency to ask intelligent and analytical questions, perhaps many of them. And if it seems necessary, you will also ask critical and penetrating questions. If your American client is not familiar with your work, or working with Germans, he might be a bit surprised by your approach.

A highly analytical, dialogue-based conversation, with questions going to the core of a business, implies a close business relationship. It could be that your collaboration has not yet reached that stage. Your American customer sees herself as managing the relationship, as deciding if and when you reach full collaboration.

Restrain your consulting-oriented approach until you are sure that you have reached that stage. Work your way towards it carefully. Early in the business relationship focus on listening, understanding, and clarifying. Americans want to be sure that you have understood their situation, their needs and challenges, before they are willing to accept you as a consultant who serves their needs.

Advice to Americans

Germans respond positively to American customer-orientation. However, if that friendliness and responsiveness is not backed up by a solution to a German customer’s problem, they are viewed as providing little value. Give clear indications to your German customer - whether external or internal - that you are focused fully on solving their specific problem.

German customers expect a strong consulting element in your approach to serving them. Early in the business relationship avoid the terms “serve” and “service.” Even if your actions are clearly customer- and service-oriented, use the words “consult” and “advise.”

For German ears “serve” and “service” can come across as a substitute for real and proven knowledge and expertise. Seek some distance and detachment from the customer as a person. Depersonalize the business relationship in the sense of an outside consultant who applies his expertise to a specific problem.

As an American, your natural inclination is to avoid entering too early into a consulting dialogue with your customers. You will ask intelligent questions and listen attentively. You will hold penetrating and critical questions for a second or possibly third conversation. Your German customers, however, expect a consulting dialogue at the very outset of the business relationship.

Immediately begin a dialogue involving the most complex and critical issues. Ask the penetrating and sensitive questions. Avoiding these questions will give your German customer the impression that you either do not grasp the problem in its complexity, or are reluctant to address them. Neither of these explanations cast a positive light on you as a consulting oriented problem-solver.