Be prepared, do your homework and don’t press for a quick close when you sell to a German!” stated Uwe Göthert, head of Dale Carnegie Training in Munich.
Perhaps this resonates with past training and something we should always be doing irrespective of who we are pitching but what are the specifics Brits should be considering when chasing German business?
Göthert, like most sales professionals, began his professional career in anything but sales – car mechanics – but very quickly realised that it was not for him. Shortly after he moved to insurance sales where the compliance regulations are robust, resulting in both significant training and the need for sitting an insurance professional’s qualification. With the burning desire to better himself, Göthert soon established his own insurance sales business before diversifying into the real estate business and enjoying the benefits of being his own boss.
It is probably fair to say that the Dale Carnegie (DC) franchise was far from his mind until a chance meeting with two Icelandic businessmen, Thor Olafsson and Helgi Oskarsson who owned the franchise in Iceland and were seeking expansion into the virgin Germany territory. DC rules required that they had a German partner in the new enterprise so clearly the franchise model recognised the importance of understanding local cultures. In 2004 Dale Carnegie Deutschland was established and Göthert’s career changed again. By 2009 he had bought out his partners and once again was captain of his own ship. Despite the opportunities to become a master franchisee and spread the DC network across Germany, Uwe decided to focus on southern Germany and keep a tighter control on the quality of services.
After assisting Heike Richter with the establishment of DC Berlin, Göthert took time to reflect on what he wanted to do. “I needed to decide if I was in the franchise business or the training business. I have limited experience in the franchise world but I do know how to run the DC business so I’ve decided to concentrate on the southern business and existing clients.” Clearly, he is doing a good job with his Munich office turning over in excess of €4M (£3.4M).
So, I felt confident that I was sat in front of the right man in SI’s quest to learn more about the German sales machine – if there really is something to learn at all? I broke the ice by asking Göthert if the DC model is “too American” for what is often considered the most conservative member of the EU?
“We need to stick to the DC content but it does need to be adapted to the local culture. I’ve since been trained in Hong Kong, Mexico, USA and each time the content has been the same but the way in which you deliver it is different. If you work in Asia ‘yes’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘yes’ and so you need to adjust the material accordingly. In Germany a lot of companies will say that DC is too American and we don’t like this American style of ‘always being in a good mood.’ I learned to simply ask them ‘what is the alternative, should we be in a bad mood?’
“The same cultural differences show through in the classroom too, Germans will happily tell the room that they ‘have quite a good product’ when the Americans will stand up and tell you that they ‘have the best product in the world.’”
Despite admitting that the Germans initially do not like the style, he claimed that most eventually do and that he is changing more German minds than he is changing the content of the US born training programme. “We start in the morning a little slower than a US training programme but by the end of the day it is at regular speed and clients are saying ‘I can do this and I am glad I did it’.”
However, sales in Germany still carries the stigma of not really being a proper job said Göthert. “I know in the US and UK most of the sales people I meet are proud of what
they are doing where as here in Germany we still have a long way to go in recognising the career. Typically people here will tell you that they are in business development rather than sales and this is a pity because sales is a great thing. Without sales nothing would happen!”
The problem seems to be deeply routed in German culture, I admitted to Göthert that when hiring sales executives myself I tend to look at the person sat opposite me rather than their list of academic achievements, is it the same in Germany? “Sadly not,” he said. “In Germany employers are still paying too much attention to the qualification and not enough on the right attitude. We have a saying at DC, ‘hire for attitude and train for skills.”
So, perhaps our stereotypical view of Germans is holding true, Göthert confirmed that they are more restrained emotionally and less likely to tell you that they are good at what they do, so should we take this into consideration when structuring your sales pitch? “Germans like to take their time and the one bit of advice I would give to someone selling from the UK would to be not too pushy for a decision,” said Göthert, “and be prepared, do your homework, the Germans hate badly presented marketing literature and documents.”
Consequently, Göthert tends to spend more time training his clients on the first part of the sales cycle, the qualifying questions, than the second half of closing. “In Germany it is more typical that a sales executive will spend one meeting finding out what the client requires and then holding a second meeting for the presentation and close.” Formality holds true when addressing your prospect too: as a rule always start with the surname until they use your Christian name. Göthert knows some companies where the employees still address their bosses by their surname despite having worked there for more than 10 years. While he sees this changing with younger companies, there is nothing to be gained by being over casual in your approach.
But exporters to Germany need to consider more than just the cultural differences if setting up a local base – Germany has some regulations that foreign companies may not have considered. For example, building a client database online is not a simple question of the client ‘ticking yes’ to accepting your newsletter – that would be considered spam.
Your prospect must ‘double opt in’ by receiving an email from you thanking them for their registration and requested that they confirm again their intent. Things get even more bizarre when it comes to the use of the telephone Göthert told me. “Technically speaking it is illegal in Germany to cold call prospects from a list, a foreign company can but, from within Germany, it is ‘borderline’ as to whether you are breaking the law. That said, most companies do simply cold call prospects but you need to be aware of the risk that it is not really allowed unless the company has invited you to do so.”
Göthert stressed that, although this is a strange German law, there are still companies which complain about cold callers. Not that it troubles them unduly because he believes cold calling does not generate a huge amount of business for them, not compared to referrals and recommendations. Despite some of the cultural ‘oddities’ that Germany might seem to have when looking from the outside in, the basics are the same and if anything perhaps a little more professional. The ‘shortcuts’ to closing that might be
practiced in the US or UK certainly will not be appreciated when making your approach but I was heartened to know that Germany, like everywhere else, has its shining stars when it comes to sales.
“There is one company I know that is really good in sales” Göthert told me. “ The owner of Würth really manages his sale executives well. The sales culture of this company is excellent, for example the owner said that everyone must refill their cars in the evening, he told me I don’t want to see a receipt with any other time on it because that is ‘selling time.’ He said to me that while refilling your car only takes 10 minutes we have thousands of sale employees and so if just 10% are doing this then we are loosing a load of sales!”
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