When thinking of expanding into Europe, Germany springs to mind. Although the country is a net exporter with a surplus of €172 billion in 2021, imports reached a staggering €1,200 billion in the same year. It is difficult to avoid doing business with Germany, be it buying, selling or investing in almost any sector.
The German Language in Business
For most Germany-based employees, speaking English as a foreign language is almost a given, and anyone doing business in Germany will benefit from that bilingual prerequisite. However, best to heed Willy Brandt’s famous advice that Germans happily speak your language when selling to you but expect to transact in German when buying from you. Utilising multilingual staff generates much greater success when transacting in German-speaking countries. Especially deal-originators benefit from speaking German. Providing a German course for your team enables them to communicate or improve their German and better understand German business etiquette.
In meetings, Germans tend to shake hands. This has, since the pandemic, evolved into the occasional elbow or fist bump. In any case, deals are still firmed up with a handshake.
The German work ethic is such that work is work and nothing much else. Work-life balance is important to Germans, who will get done as much as possible during their working day. That reflects in their business dealings. Small talk doesn’t happen much beyond the weather or the football. A set agenda is adhered to and worked off during meetings which start and end on time.
Germans may address you by your surname in a work or business setting, adding Herr or Frau for Mr and Mrs. Should you be a PhD holder, they may address you as Frau Doktor or Herr Doktor. Similarly, they expect you do the same in return. Do your homework by researching your German opposite before meeting in person, on the phone or virtually. When introducing yourself, use your first and last name to not put a potential client or customer on the spot unable to address you formally. A German company’s website may tell you how formal or informal they are in business life, as do their email signatures.
Then again, Germany has many thriving start-ups with an almost ‘anglicised’ work culture where people will address you by your first name and use the informal du. Be aware still that it can offend some by not being addressed formally using Sie or their appropriate title. That faux pas is best to be avoided.
German companies can be somewhat hierarchical, and decision-making takes time. Do not expect an instant result. Business in Germany is relationship driven, long-term oriented and based on trust. Once trust is established, a business relationship can last for many years, and mistakes will be forgiven easier and not necessarily result in immediately terminated agreements. The end result is to Germans as important as the process of getting there. Bear that in mind when bombarded with impossible-sounding questions about your business, product or services. Make sure you have the answers.
Germans are known for liking value for money. They also value openness and fairness in business. Being sticklers for details, they will do their due diligence on pricing before going into negotiations. Don’t be tempted to adhere to the Anglo-Saxon model of bumping up your prices in the expectation that they are being haggled down anyway. You will only end up losing their trust and not closing the deal.
Closing the Deal
With the obligatory handshake, of course… German businesses expect everything in writing afterwards, which stems from the German civil law system being driven by formality, unlike, for example, the English law system, which allows for arguments later based on common sense.
By Stefan Oloffs
Author: Stefan Oloffs is the founder of German Language Coach in London. Stefan assists professionals in speaking German confidently. He teaches German in one-to-one and group settings, both in-person and online.