The International Entrepreneur – Cultural Tips on Germany: an Interview with Christian Hoeferle

Christian Hoeferle

This week I am honored to interview German-American business expert and journalist, Christian Hoeferle. At the end of the interview, you will find more information about Christian’s experience as well as contact information. Here is what Christian shared about the German business culture:

What do you see as unique cultural characteristics of German people that are reflected in Germany’s business culture?

Germans are known for valuing diligence, thoroughness, education, manners, and structure. An old German idiom says “Ordnung muss sein!”, loosely translated into “there has to be order!” This almost proverbial desire for a sense of order goes hand in hand with a willingness to be regulated. Overall, Germans also tend to be very risk-averse which is owed to their history. Sometimes this translates into business practices which may appear slow or reactive to other cultures.

In your opinion, what are Germany’s most competitive industries in world markets?

The obvious answer is the automotive world, along with other manufacturing industries, engineering, and the chemical industry. Since Germany is one of the most eco-minded nations by international standards, German green energy and renewables businesses consider themselves global leaders in their sector. You will also find that many German small and mid-sized businesses in the craft & trade professions are at the top of their field.

What’s the best way to find potential German business contacts?

Peer referral might be the best way to expand your network. But that isn’t always an option, especially if you are just beginning to establish a presence in Germany. That is why I encourage businesses to attend trade fairs. German companies are usually strong supporters of the “Messe” for their respective industry. These industry expos are both, a stage to showcase your company’s expertise, products, and services as well as a terrific platform for networking and business development. Try to identify the leading German B2B trade publications which cater to your industry. Most of these outlets have company registries. You will likely have to pay to access their information but it can be a good investment. Bi-national Chambers of Commerce have also proven to be helpful in developing new contacts.

What do you wish people knew about doing business in Germany before they arrive in country?

Typically it can take a while to earn a German’s trust. So be prepared to be persistent – and trustworthy. Do as you say and say what you mean. Be polite and respect rank. But if in doubt how to communicate, candor trumps diplomacy. Not only are Germans not risk-takers, they also want to avoid ambiguity. Try to be as clear as you can in your communication. If you don’t speak German (or only little), then communication normally defaults to English. Most German professionals speak English, however, they do so with varying degrees of proficiency. Using simple English and avoiding culture-specific idiomatic language helps to address that. Americans, Australians and Britons tend to use many sports analogies in their English which can cause misunderstandings and/or puzzled looks. Starting a business relationship right off the bat isn’t something Germans are comfortable with. In fact you’re throwing them a curve ball or you’ll even catch them off base.

Over the past decades many businesses around the world have gradually implemented a US-American model of management and leadership. While this can also be true for several German companies, I think most newcomers to the German market should be aware that team management and leadership styles in Germany still differ quite significantly from the US model. Therefore, intercultural and global team leadership trainings should be considered a must during your company’s strategy development for expansion in Germany.

From your perspective, what’s the business climate like for entrepreneurs (supportive vs. unsupported, culturally accepted profession vs. not accepted, etc.)?

Germans are strong believers in fairness. Hence, business models that appear to take advantage of or exploit others are frowned upon.

You will find that since the mid-1990s Germany has reworked much of its welfare system, the tax code and outdated subsidy programs. Whereas it was then known as the “sick man of Europe” it currently is the best performing nation within the European Union. Foreign investment is sought-after and government agencies like Germany Trade & Invest (gtai), the Federal Ministry of Economics (and its subsidiaries) and other economic development agencies coordinate the support efforts, including government grants, tax abatements, tariff regulations, or site selection.

Since Germans take pride in their educational system – both, higher and vocational education – it is important to know that degrees matter to them. For example, a Master Electrician or a PhD in Chemical Engineering will likely display a subconscious sense of superiority towards their foreign counterparts, unless you can present a comparable degree. To many non-Germans this may seem arrogant and overbearing. Not to worry, though. It’s an example of the Germans’ submission to their “universal” order. Very rarely is it meant to be taken personal.

About Christian Hoeferle

Christian Hoeferle, a native of Germany, is based in the Chattanooga, Tennessee area since 2004. He is the owner and founder of Hoeferle Consulting. Christian is an intercultural consultant, coach, trainer, translator/interpreter and relocation specialist. He is fluent in German and English and has basic Spanish language skills.

Prior to his move to the United States, Christian worked for international companies like Entertainment Media, Bertelsmann and Viacom where he served in several leadership positions. He serves as Chattanooga Regional Activity Director for the TN Chapter of the German-American Chamber of Commerce of the Southern U.S.

Christian is a graduate of the Akademie der Bayerischen Presse (Munich, Germany) and a fully trained editor/reporter. He currently serves as Board President for Mosaic (Ocoee Region Multicultural Services – ORMS), an area non-profit which helps integrate newcomers to their new home in Southeast Tennessee.

Christian has cultivated a strong presence in the international business community in social media . He can be reached via Twitter: @Hoeferle, his Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/HoeferleConsulting, and on his website: www.hoeferle.com.