German Approach

In Germany two parties enter into a dialogue about matching a concrete request to the method and approach of the supplier. This what is then defined and agreed upon. But, once this dialogue is completed, there is limited input from the customer about the how, about the actual execution of the request.

Responsibility for the how is transferred from the customer to the supplier of the product or service. For if you have contracted an expert to solve a problem, perform a task, complete a job, or manage a project, it is expected that this expert is capable of doing it independent of input from the customer on the method used. These details have been more than adequately discussed and accepted by the customer.

Fulfilling the contract does not mean, however, a disconnect between customer and supplier. Steady, but not constant, information flow maintains the collaboration. The customer is informed on a regular basis about the status of the work.

The German customer, however, expects the external expert to think beyond the limited scope of the contract. He is expected to understand the purpose of his work in the broader context of the client’s business.

Depending on the scope of the task performed, the German customer views the supplier as accountable not only for the results of his particular work, but also for how these results affect related areas of the client company.

American Approach

Collaboration in the American business context is defined first and foremost by the customer. The American customer not only defines what she wants, but also to a significant extent how she wants it.

Collaboration means, therefore, a high level of client input in the how of a task, job or project. Customer requests are understood by both parties not so much as open topics to be discussed by equal partners, but as orders formulated and issued by the customer.

This underlying assumption on the part of both customer and supplier of a product or service goes to the root of the American understanding of customer orientation. The supplier is constantly reacting to the needs of the customer, including modifying how he executes a request.

The customer has indirect influence on the internal processes (the how) of the supplier of a product or service. For this collaborative effort to function effectively a high level of communication between customer and supplier is necessary. Information flow is guaranteed via short-term feedback between the customer and the supplier during the entire business relationship.

This allows the customer to modify his requests depending on changing situations. Because the customer exerts such a high level of control over the external expert (the how as well as the what), the expert is held accountable exclusively for the work performed as dictated (ordered) by the customer. How the results might affect related areas of the client company remains the responsibility of the customer.

German View

Germans prefer a very high level of dialogue (collaboration) with the supplier in the initial stage of the cooperation. Once there is agreement on the what and how, though, the supplier is given the mandate (transfer of responsibility) to execute.

The collaboration continues, but primarily based on communicating about and dealing with any unexpected changes in parameters. If the execution goes as planned, there is little necessity for collaboration.

American View

Americans prefer a high level of collaboration during the entire business relationship. The initial stage of cooperation will seldom involve the depth and duration as in the German business context. But, once the execution phase begins the American customer expects to be involved not only in the what, but also in the how.

In other words, the American customer reserves the right to give input into how his request is being fulfilled. The customer is constantly present during the execution phase. In fact, even if the execution phase is going as planned, the supplier will nonetheless maintain a high level of communication with the customer.

It is not surprising, therefore, that German suppliers find their American customers to be inadequately prepared and thus engaged in the early request-definition and planning phase, and then too involved (micro-managing) during the execution phase.

From the American perspective, however, the request-definition and planning phase are too time-consuming and detailed. Since changing parameters are the rule and not the exception, the collaboration inevitably takes place once a project has begun (the execution phase).

Advice to Germans

When American customers speak of a good collaborative relationship with a supplier they primarily mean rapid reaction and flexibility of the supplier to the input of the customer concerning not only the what, but also the how, of the task.

The American customer wants to be involved in all phases of the execution, not just in the start-up. This might surprise you, perhaps even be a distraction. It can seem like micromanagement.

Therefore, choose the right moment early in the working relationship to address this point. It's sensitive, but important.

American customers want to remain informed, at times only generally, at other times in a very detailed way. They reserve the right to go down to the tactical level in order to address certain issues.

Advice to Americans

When German customers speak about collaboration between them and a supplier they primarily mean the initial phase of request definition and planning. The input of your German customer will stress the what of the business relationship and not the how. In other words, they want to be highly involved in the early stage, but less so in the various phases of the execution.

This will surprise you. This style of collaboration will appear more like customer absence. Early in the business relationship discuss your role and the role of your German customer during the execution phase. Be prepared to communicate less frequently with the customer. S

he has decided to put your services to work. She assumes that you are the expert, that you have established processes to deliver your solutions.

She sees no reason to get involved in the details of execution. That is your job. Do not expect the customer to hand-hold you. She will not expect you to hand-hold her.