Market Access Pitfalls 10: German Business Culture

Market Access Pitfalls 10: German Business Culture

Many of my Canadian clients felt their business interactions with their German targets would be very easy. After all, „Canadians are just like Europeans!“ They typically said this to differentiate themselves from US Americans, positioning themselves as a halfway-house of sorts between Europe and the US.

Let’s leave aside the fact that Europeans are not a homogenous group. Having worked in the Canadian Embassy for over six years, I can tell you that there are significant differences between Canadians and Germans.


Germans take punctuality very seriously. If you have an appointment to meet someone at 10AM, the meeting starts at 10AM.

What does this mean for you?

  • If the meeting is on the premises of a large company, you will have to arrive maybe 10-15 minutes early to complete check-in procedures at reception and have someone walk you to the meeting room.
  • If you are running late, let them know. You should have a good reason, such as a closed road due to a traffic accident. „Sorry, I overslept, too many beers last night, haha“ is not going to make a great impression.
  • If you just casually amble in 20 minutes past your agreed meeting time, expect your contact to have moved on to something else. It is unlikely they will make time for you again, either on the spot or at a later point.


Much depends on industry and age, but generally speaking, Germans in business are very formal. A lot more formal than North Americans, for instance. To give you just one example: my father shared an office with a colleague for decades, and by the time he retired, they were still on a last-name basis. Not because they hated each other, but because they were German. Granted, this would be unusual these days – frequently, colleagues are on a first-name basis, but on a last-name basis with their managers. At least initially, it’s still a good idea to approach a business contact carefully.

What does this mean for you?

  • There are – sometimes vast – differences depending on industry, company size and seniority level. You will want to be a lot more formal with the board member of a DAX company than with someone from a tech start-up.
  • Even where formality is out, politeness is usually still very much in.
  • Err on the side of caution initially. For instance, on first reaching out to Michael Schmidt, address him as „Dear Mr. Schmidt“, not as „Hi Mike“. He will let you know soon enough if he is happy to move to a first-name basis.
  • Academic titles are taken very seriously. If Michael Schmidt is Dr. Michael Schmidt, address him as Dr. Schmidt. And if he is even Prof. Dr. Michael Schmidt, address him as Professor Schmidt.
  • Likewise, you may want to dress more formally than you might in your home country. This will mean wearing a suit in many cases. It’s easier to dress down for a second meeting than to try and correct a negative first impression.


Many Europeans, especially German and Dutch people, have a reputation for being very direct. This is often perceived as rudeness by non-Europeans. (We, in turn, take people to be rude who are late for meetings.) On the plus side, you will typically get a good idea of how interested your German contact really is.

I once visited a 5* hotel in Germany with a group of Canadians who were preparing a delegation visit to Germany. Two ladies from the hotel’s sales team showed us around. I knew very soon that we were not going to book that particular hotel. Meanwhile, my Canadian colleagues seemed to get more and more excited, shouting „This is great!“, „This is amazing!“, „Oh, wow!“, and thanking the sales ladies profusely for this incredibly interesting tour. The two of them basically had $ signs in their eyes, thinking that clearly they had a sale.

As soon as we left the hotel, everybody was like, „Oh my God, that was AWFUL!“

If this had been a German group, they would have said, „Ah yes, okay. I see, I see. Well, thank you very much for taking the time to meet us today. We will consider all the information very carefully, but to be honest with you, this is not quite what we are looking for.“

What does this mean for you?

  • There is no need to be perpetually upbeat and enthusiastic about everything. It’s okay to address things that are not great.
  • If your meeting partner seems unenthusiastic, they may simply be focused on the factual aspects of the meeting. (Or perhaps they are simply a grump.)
  • If they even tell you your product does not stand a chance in the market, don’t just dismiss them as rude idiots. Ask them why, and what changes would be required to make your product work for the market.

Importance of Relationships

For Germans (as for many other nations), it is very important to build a proper relationship before jumping into business. This is an opportunity for you to show them how professional and reliable you are.

What does this mean for you?

  • It is extremely unlikely that you will get a meeting based on one or two emails.
  • It is extremely unlikely that you will get a purchase order on the basis of one meeting, or a few emails or phone calls.
  • You will have to put in time and effort to actively build the relationship. Most likely, a lot of time and effort. Remember that you are probably not the only potential supplier in this company’s inbox.
  • It can be frustrating to chase a busy German buyer for a meeting, but if you give up, you will most certainly never make a sale to them.

Content & Substance

When you do get a meeting, your German contact will expect you to be prepared. They are not there to make friends with you – after some introductory small talk, they will expect to talk about your product.

What does this mean for you?

  • „So, what do you guys do?“ is not a great conversation starter in a scheduled meeting with a German company.
  • Research your potential customer. Prepare information on how your product can help them do business better.
  • Be able to answer technical questions.
  • Don’t digress, as this will make you look unprofessional.
  • If the conversation returns to a friendly chat after a few minutes, they are most likely not interested. Even if you got along great.


After the meeting, do follow-up. This is very important. Many of my clients who had meetings with potential customer told me with a shrug, „I never heard back from them, so I guess they’re not interested.“

They may well have been interested, but just very busy. Or they may have taken my clients‘ lack of follow-up as an indication that the clients were not interested. Or perhaps somebody else with a similar product had better follow-up and thereby made the sale.

What does this mean for you?

  • Ideally, agree on a few follow-up points at the end of the meeting. This gives you a reason to stay in touch.
  • If you agree to provide more information, send that information as soon as possible. Ideally this means within two or three days. If you send it through six weeks later, they will have already forgotten you.
  • Make sure you provide valuable information in your interactions. Especially in the beginning, don’t just call people to chat with them. They will consider you a time-waster.
  • If you realize you won’t be able to meet the other side’s requirements (perhaps in terms of quantity or delivery timelines), say so straight away. Your honesty will be appreciated. If you are fairly sure you will be able to meet those requirements at a later point in time, say so, too. It will be much easier to have discussions further down the road if you were open and honest, than if you just drop out of the conversation.

How Important is Personal Rapport?

Many clients told me about meetings they had had with German companies that came to nothing. My clients didn’t quite understand why, because they had had great rapport with their contact.

Nobody wants to do business with a psychopath. And no German business will buy from you simply because you are nice. Rapport is a nice-to-have but not necessarily a must-have. They are buying your product, not you.

What does this mean for you?

  • „We are nice“ is not sufficient to make a sale.
  • If you have a unique solution that the German company desperately needs, they will buy from you regardless of how nice you are.
  • If your product is not unique, and the company is talking to you and several competitors, they may base their final decision on any number of factors. The most important ones will be 1) product quality, 2) product price, 3) how professional and reliable the supplier is.
  • If you and your competitors offer equal product quality at the same price and are equally professional, then personal rapport might become the decisive factor.

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