Customer experience of operational service in Germany is extremely different to the US or the UK. The service environment here is defined by a mix of personal attitudes, abilities of interaction and is a reflection of motivation. A thesis:
Waves of Change - Consider the relatively short German coast, then locals appear disproportionately fascinated by waves when compared to say, the UK or Denmark with seven times the length of shore. Not, however, by those pounding walls of water found in Hawaii, Biarritz or even Newquay, but metaphorically.
Following the foundation of the Federal Republic, rebuilding and redevelopment was soon accompanied by the first wave*, namely food. The clothing wave followed and as Germany’s wealth was re-established so did accommodation. Further prosperity brought the car and travel waves. The German industrial machine powered on; demand for goods increased.
The "elbow" consumer society became firmly established and it is still partly present today. Why concern oneself with fine service when superbly manufactured products are selling? The occasional slump saw well-intended yet half-hearted attempts at change, yet each upturn of the economy brought a renewed neglect of customers. Service excellence? Nein danke!
And as Germany of the late nineties experienced its latest telecommunications wave, demand for voice and data transfer boomed. Market forces, unleashed through deregulation and consumer choice, were supported by an abundant supply of goods. But service and customer-orientation centred around price.
Suppliers have either not yet understood or they fail the courage. Those wanting a telecom partner search long and hard for helpful, friendly, forever open stores selling mobiles and more. With special offers in abundance, even here customer service still more or less follows old, established patterns. Short term results and market share are achieved through pricing and "Aktionismus".
Desperation or Hope - Germany is a country still strained by reunification, with an economy suffering under central government policies and feeling the massive pressure of globalisation. Consumer attitudes towards foreign quality are changing constantly yet even on the tide of the more open market of the European Monetary Union, change is too slow.
And yet, the next crests lapping the shores of Germany will definitely be those of service. The service industry as a whole is on the rise, if more slowly than in many other economies and service attitudes show small signs of improvement.
Service driven from within as a believable and noticeable extension to existing corporate culture is becoming more necessary than ever. Companies that recognise and accept this are mostly those that have experienced pain strong enough to support the process of change.
Consumer confidence and their ability to purchase are battered by the high levels of unemployment in Germany while job insecurity is driving those in work to differentiate their expenditures and reduce their willingness to buy. Government through high taxation, both direct and indirect, is reducing the Euro in the pocket, creating an even stronger desire for value for money. Economic prudence should not be confused with stinginess.
Whilst the introduction of the Euro in 2002 has devastated confidence further, it is offering higher transparency both on the web and across borders. Berlin will still not challenge unions on opening hours even though longer trading and friendly staff make a difference to those living close to a national border, as do high speed connections to those using the internet.
Many suppliers still expect special consideration, claiming they know best how to deal with the local market and German consumers' concerns. A status quo continues as entrenched monopolies and institutions look for that one more day, that one more safe haven.
Compared to overseas, the German business society is used to managing scarcity and still loves to limit competition where possible. Companies still respect antiquated laws on retail restrictions and even a now obsolete ban on comparative advertising only loosened following pressure from Brussels. The suing of competitors openly offering their customers longer guarantees or new advantages is a further example of the lack of freedoms.
Finally, German products are no longer exclusively high quality. Imported products function as well, last as long and are more similar than ever. Service quality will be the only deciding factor besides price in hardware stores, supermarkets, at travel companies, utilities and agencies alike, to name but a few.
A Foreigner's Phenomenon and German Consumers - So service has to be implemented and when it finally arrives, it could bring permanent change. Those going with the flow will succeed; those not riding it are doomed to sink. The future lies in addressing consumer power and offering flexible solutions supported by first class service, as often found abroad.
While foreigners' comments on the topic of service are often not welcome, criticism and debate can be constructive and analysis can inspire a wider search for improvement. Foreign nationals' complaints about impolite service or simply the lack of the extremely friendly service available in their home country perhaps oversee cultural differences but could be of help.
These eye-opening differences between other countries and here combine with consumers who have, until now, been less willing to comparison shop. But are German customers satisfied objectively with the service they receive? Research revealing high rates of losses leaves no doubt that enormous numbers are not. Do consumers in Germany make their dissatisfaction known? Again, research shows that most do not. So perhaps Germany suffers from inexperienced consumers, too.
Behaviour follows destructive patterns. Rather than complaining, old suppliers are swapped for new while firms invest enormous effort and resources in acquiring new customers. The carousel of comparison begins anew; the new source is often of only minimal improvement to the old.
Companies suffer narrowing profit, feel the pressure of strong competition, reduce prices and miss opportunities in the consumer-driven market. Real differentiation from competitors is seldom. Compare local supermarkets; scruffy, dull, with minimal space and long queues at the cash till, accompanied by grumpy, disinterested staff.
Even poorer service is created through cost cutting and supplemented by diverse attempts to use advanced technology to distract consumers such as self check-in and personnel-free cash tills.
Tradition and Labour - Recent German history shows continued implementation of production procedures in a manufacturing powerhouse that is legendary. Improvement of repeatable processes with rising standards of precision has turned Germany into the successful export nation of today. A vast and unique trade fair industry has even been developed to present their excellence to the rest of the world.
Highly trained labour builds upon an early tradition where professional status was established already in the Middle Ages. Those entering industry to learn a trade completed their Meisterstück and were admired and respected. Those who didn't entered lower paid and low respected trades.
Status was strengthened when success and the high standard of living achieved by both white and blue collar workers brought the phenomenon of the Gastarbeiter. Untrained foreigners undertook many service jobs unwanted by nationals with low status and low pay.
Historic concentration on technical products has been maintained until today, resulting in a weak service industry. Slow deregulation in industry is finally allowing companies to go beyond their cost cutting and help increase sales. Germany is also finally addressing the problem of turning out the best trained people for jobs that no longer exist and turning to services.
With globalised business moving faster than legislation, vacant positions exist, some left undefined by a job description, with zero applicants because there is nobody trained for the job.
Not learning a trade is not a weakness. Why shouldn’t we, for instance, have shoe shiners on German streets and why can't we give shop assistants the respect they deserve?
Tradition, Status and Psychology - Dienen, to serve, implies a far more antiquated and subversive attitude in the German command language than serve does in English. Germans don’t like serving nor do they seem to demand high levels of service.
Furthermore, the specialisation in repeatable processes proves to be deceptive. A customer is not a repeatable process. A given customer acts, reacts and interacts in different ways at different times and in differing situations. The consumer is not predictable.
And then there are other wonderful characteristics in this country's society. Logic or rationale belong to German society and perhaps serve to prevent the demand for good service just as much as insight or understanding. In this peaceful country, the German is used to having his "raison" appealed to. If someone sees a queue, then it's reasonable to know it will take a while. If staff have to be reduced, then it's understandable that service will take longer.
So a workforce that is not used to flexibility or to serving, language and social implications, a society frowning upon service jobs and a consumer base inexperienced in constructive complaint combine to create today’s Dienstleistungswüste, the service desert.
Optimism and the Future - Yet, even though Germans continue to shop from the same suppliers, regardless of poor service, they seem to be becoming more demanding. Consumers are slowly learning to expect the quality from people they have long expected of their products. Service can be placed on the agenda; debate and reflection could take place in the media.
Now is the time to act. Welcoming words of personal greeting or simple eye contact and personal acknowledgement from staff could reveal new attitudes in stores. "Excuse me" sounds consumer friendly, "Achtung" does not.
Pressures from shareholder value should also help guide companies. Demands on profitability will follow more global patterns, short term gain achieved through pricing is not the only way to hold market share. And, as this loses its attraction to higher returns, new innovation is needed and service attitudes are the answer.
The German consumer has travelled far, has experienced how enjoyable and diversified customer service can be and could now be more prepared to demand it at home.
A New Service Environment and German Efficiency - The economy will eventually be restructured, differentiation of products and services, as the key to a very weak entrepreneurialism, will be promoted and firms will find more market niches. Employees will realise they cannot continue to annoy or neglect their clients and customers, internal or external.
The status quo of today must change. Management and board publish guidelines, company policies and mission statements, while most staff presumably considers themselves to be friendly. Yet service is still weak.
A solution can only partly be found through identifying weaknesses in processes and simple corrective training to smile here, be friendly there. An ideal corporate service culture needs to be debated and identified by all parties and a campaign to change attitudes be developed on all activity levels and fully integrated into the process.
Staff need understanding and need to understand. Methods used to change staff attitudes and knowledge can be formulated in concert with clients' needs and desires.
Once embraced, commitment to service orientation never stops and, whilst aiding success, is actually fun. Creation of a service mentality helps stimulate an atmosphere in which private effort is supported. People, as the "point of contact“ between products and customers, define the surface impression, image and values. Thoughtful service is as necessary as marketing and advertising.
Yes, a smile goes a long way. And with attitude and the will to change, service as a "mind-set“ could be implemented with German perfection. Just imagine.
*Fresswelle, Kleidungswelle, Wohnungswelle, Autowelle, Reisewelle, Dienstleistungswelle.
Concept, idea, copy and variations are the property of
Garry R. Hurskainen-Green, Amazing Concepts GmbH.