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Around the World

Doing Business in Germany

Author(s):

RaeAnn Slaybaugh


November/December 2008, eSide Supply Management Vol. 1, No. 6

Germany is the largest national economy in Europe, the third largest in the world by nominal GDP and an important transportation hub given its central location. Many supply management professionals will find themselves traveling to this major sourcing destination at some point, so we’ve compiled a quick-reference guide to common business etiquette.

Germany is the largest national economy in Europe, the third largest in the world by nominal GDP and an important transportation hub thanks to its central locale. "Made in Germany" is a common phrase in the world marketplace.

Many supply management professionals will find themselves doing business in Germany at some point, so it pays to know the subtleties of the country's business etiquette.

Meetings
Frankfurt

Frankfurt

Windows of opportunity. Schedule phone meetings at least two weeks in advance and in-person meetings one month prior. Avoid July, August and December, as these are common vacation months.

Be punctual at all costs. Arriving even a few minutes late to a meeting is impolite. Fifteen minutes is a serious faux pas and could jeopardize future dealings. If a delay is unavoidable, call to notify and apologize.

You can't "wing it." Germans will expect you to be extremely prepared, with many facts and examples.

Follow procedure. Business meetings are typically presided over by the chairperson and are agenda-based. Match your behaviors with theirs as closely as possible.

Don't take it personally. Germans often look for deficiencies in a product or service and are quite comfortable drawing your attention to it. Ultimately, the value of doing so is so it can be corrected. Apologize (not excessively) and provide a plausible explanation or solution.

Interestingly, Germans don't respond well to criticism themselves. Speak diplomatically and move forward to a mutually beneficial solution.

Keep it simple. Most business decisions in Germany are based on logic. Stick to the facts, even if your literature and meeting materials seem longer than usual.

Go easy on the humor. Joking conveys you aren't serious about your business - or worse, theirs.

Business Attire

Go conservative. In the office, men often wear dark suits, white shirts and muted ties or dark blue blazers and gray flannel pants. Women wear dark business suits or skirt-blouse combinations and avoid large, expensive jewelry. Even in hot weather, they often remain in their jackets and ties. If they remove their own jackets and ties, you can do the same.

Leave the leisurewear at home. Plan to wear tastefully coordinated clothes. Most restaurants don't require jackets and ties, but they do expect patrons to be well-dressed. If the invitation specifies "formal dress," bring your best - this is very dressy by North American standards.

Introductions and Farewells

Handshakes. Men and women should exchange firm handshakes and maintain eye contact. A wave or nod is insufficient.

Introducing yourself. Don't call your German associates by their first names. Use titles, followed by surnames. For example, Mr. is "Herr" (Herr Smith); Mrs. or Ms. is "Frau" (Frau Smith); "Doctor" is "Doktor" (Herr/Frau Doktor Smith); and "Professor" is "Herr/Frau Professor Smith." When introducing yourself, use your last name only, never a title.

Group introductions. Always introduce the highest-ranking executive first.

Personal space is at a premium. The polite distance in Germany is greater than what North Americans are used to.

Common phrases. "Guten Tag" is the German equivalent of "hello." "Thank you" is "Danke." "Please" and "You're welcome" are conveyed with "Bitte schön." "Goodbye" translates to "Auf Wiedersehen." "Good morning" is "Guten morgen." "Good evening" is "Guten abend." When answering the telephone, use your last name - "Guten Tag, Jones," for example.

Small talk. Safe, popular topics are soccer, current events, politics and travel. Don't ask personal questions.

Go light on the flattery. Giving compliments can actually be off-putting.

Expect interruptions. Often, the person who speaks loudest and longest "wins." Stand your ground politely, but firmly. If a point is important to you, keep at it.

Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt
Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt
Language Preferences

English is common. Although English is often spoken during business meetings, it's a good idea to hire an interpreter. Make an effort to familiarize yourself with common German phrases.

Social Etiquette

Social outings. Having time to oneself after business hours is a priority for Germans, so don't expect to be invited out socially every night of your trip.

Be on time. Again, punctuality is critical, even in social situations.

Business lunches. Ironically, business discussions at lunch are a faux pas unless your German host initiates the conversation.

Basic dining do's and don'ts.

  • Keep your hands on the table at all times during the meal.
  • Keep your elbows off the table.
  • Place your knife and fork side by side on the plate when you're finished.
  • If you're taking a break during the meal but intend to continue eating, cross the knife and fork on your plate (fork over knife).
  • Invite your spouse to a business dinner only if your host requests it.
  • Drink only after the host does.
  • Don't touch anything with your knife that doesn't require it for cutting. It suggests the food isn't tender.
  • Don't leave food on your plate.

Beer. While Germans are prolific beer drinkers, public drunkenness is frowned upon.

Picking up the check. It is polite to offer to pay. If your associates decline, accept and thank them. Make a note to return the favor when they visit.

Gift-Giving Guidelines

Small gifts. Small gifts are considered good manners, especially upon first contact. Quality pens, tasteful office items with your company logo, imported liquor (but not beer - many of the finest beers in the world are made in Germany) and fine chocolates are good options.

Substantial gifts. Gifts of excessive value are inappropriate, especially before a deal is reached. The larger the gift, the more public and official its giving should be.

No gifts. A recent trend is to skip gift-giving altogether and get down to business. Nevertheless, small, souvenir-style gifts - while not expected - are appreciated.

A Done Deal

Influencers. In Germany, managers often remain with one firm throughout their careers and rise slowly through the ranks. As such, quick, bottom-line results aren't as motivating as logical argumentation and examples.

Competition. Germans dislike competing on price alone only and will do so only when necessary - the sale of bulk steel or chemicals, for instance. They prefer to compete on excellence.

Strong-arming is weak. German businesspeople don't easily concede, and the larger the organization, the less effective confrontational strategies will be. Try to establish common ground instead.

Don't expect an answer at the table. Business decisions are typically slow, protracted and painstakingly scrutinized.

Word is bond. A contract is even stronger. If your German associates say something will be done, it will. They'll expect the same from you. This is doubly true after a contract is signed.

Meeting adjourned. German businesspeople often rap the table with their knuckles to indicate their approval.


RaeAnn Slaybaugh is a senior writer for the Institute for Supply Management™. She can be reached by e-mail.

For more articles and resources on doing business internationally, visit the ISM articles database.

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Sources

How to Practice Business Etiquette in Germany

Doing Business in Germany

Germany Business Etiquette and Culture

Business Etiquette and Protocol in Germany

eDiplomat: Germany