Henley Business School Germany regularly conducts evening workshops to which they invite students, alumni, and friends. I am happy I am considered a friend, and from time to time I use the opportunity to broaden my horizon. I found last week’s event especially inspiring, and I could take away some good insights on how to build trust in a business relationship.
Have we ever learnt how Trust is built?
Felix Müller, Managing Director of the School and Lecturer in Coaching & Behavioural Change conducted a session on The Revival of Humanity in a Digitised World: The Role of Trust. Felix observes that people’s contribution to organizational success increasingly lies in the truly human capacity of co-creating innovation, which requires them to build and maintain trustful relationships. However, he asked us, have we ever learnt how trust is built and what each party’s role is in doing so?
What I especially liked about the workshop: Felix did not only share his insights into the biological, psychological and neuroscientific foundations of building trust, but also gave some very hands-on advice on how to build trustful relationships in various settings. From my perspective, his advice is especially relevant for those who want to do business in Germany (or other Western countries), i.e., build trust in a business relationship with a German / with Germans, and have grown up in an environment where how people build trust might differ from what is common understanding over here.
Trust in a Business Relationship: Cultural Differences
What am I talking about? According to my research and experience, in many cultures, people would especially (or only) trust their friends and family and may consider people in their extended network – that is, friends of friends of friends – especially trustworthy. That is not (so much) the case in Germany, where people tend to put (more) emphasis on other aspects: For Germans, credibility and reliability are the fundamentals of trust. We believe in institutions; people generally obey rules and adhere to norms and standards. Germany is a country with a strong rule of law, a low level of corruption, and low political and economic risk. People living in such environments are generally more trusting of others than those in countries with the opposite conditions; we (think we) act rationally, and in making trust judgments, affective (one could also say emotional or intuitive) influences do not (to a great extent / as compared to other cultures) take priority over cognitive influences such as professional credentials (competence). Coming to the question of how to build trust in a business relationship, we tend to make trust decisions based on a rational weighing of cost and benefits.
Since my mission is to help international companies gain business in Germany, let us focus on how German decision makers would generally make that call whether they should trust you (or me, or anybody), or not. And, for that purpose, what Felix lined out is super helpful.
The Sources of Trust
According to Felix, the sources of trust are
Sounds like a no-brainer? Let me give just a few examples of what can go wrong and what to preferably do in the first stages of trying to build rapport with a (mainstream) German decision maker:
Competence is about showing the other person that you know what you are doing. And, that includes that you are capable of understanding what the other person needs or might need. And, not shower them with superfluous information:
From my experience with working with Indian service providers, for example, people are often eager to introduce their complete range of products and services to a prospective client. When approaching someone, please, do not copy and paste your entire portfolio; rather, try to very briefly explain what your key competencies are or what specific topics you would like to discuss. Don’t present yourselves as “the leading company” unless you are from Alibaba Group, Gazprom, or maybe Coca-Cola. For a German, who is not used to these kinds of hollow superlatives (as we most probably would perceive them), this claim will instantly undermine your credibility.
Always keep in mind that problem-focused Germans are eager to hear about concrete solutions (rather than visionary ideas that we would most readily label “dream castles”). Therefore, you should highlight your expertise in solving problems and try to give examples, and mention references. I recommend that, when you talk about reference clients, instead of (or maybe in addition to) displaying the logos of the usual suspects in your presentation (depending on your industry, these can be big market players such as BMW, SAP, or Springer-Verlag), you should talk about how you have helped specialized businesses of comparable size (to your target client) solve specific problems. However, don’t forget to ask your reference customer(s) for permission first! Present yourself as competent, knowledgeable, and open.
That means that you let your counterpart also talk, even if he or she is not as fluent in English as you would have hoped for! No matter how much time you have spent preparing the perfect sales pitch, if you do not let the other person participate in the conversation, he or she might feel frustrated and chances are you will never find out exactly what they need.
Integrity is about showing the other person that you do what you promise. Some of the core principles kids in Germany are (generally) taught are to be on time and to stick to what you promise or commit to. The sticking to (former) decisions or statements might sometimes come across as inflexibility. While somewhere else people may make decisions, bearing in mind that those decisions may need to be altered or adapted along the way, Germans typically view a decision akin to a promise that has to be kept, no matter what happens. A clear communication on which decisions are meant to be solid versus ‘intermediate’ decisions which are made based on limited data sets and will probably need refining is key to avoiding a poisoning of the hopefully fruitful business relationship. So, if you intend to change anything agreed upon, explain the what, why and how. Or, as travel writer Cal O Cal summarized his best practices for dealing with Germans to me: “Make a plan, explain the plan to them, and stick to the plan. Then, invite them for a beer. Any changes to the plan will confuse them. Germans like planning.”
Talking about being on time: Germany ranks as one of the top countries worldwide when it comes to the stress we put on punctuality (“Pünktlichkeit”). In business, arriving even a few minutes late (without a very good excuse) will create a bad impression. If you think a “Sorry, I was held up at another meeting!” is a very good excuse, forget it! Also, telling me that when coming from the airport during rush hour, it had unfortunately taken you more than the anticipated 10 minutes to arrive in the city center won’t make things better. When you are running late on a deadline, at least tell your client or work colleague, so they can adapt their plans accordingly.
Felix had a very good tip on how to help your counterpart build trust in you in this department: Give yourself deadlines and stick to your promises. For example, he explained, you could tell your client that you’ll be delivering the work results “until tomorrow, 11 a.m. CET, latest.” Obviously, you will stick to what you have promised (delivering no later than 10:59 CET!), but what is important is that you also point out that you have kept your promise. In an email, you could, for example, write: “Dear Ms. Neuer, as promised, I am herewith delivering the results before 11 a.m.” Cultivate this habit of giving and keeping promises, and Ms. Neuer will reward you with increasingly trusting you.
Bottom line here: Germans like their business partners to be “zuverlässig” (reliable) and things to be predictable. Keep your side of the bargain, and don’t make compromises on quality and delivery times. And, do not try renegotiating when you have committed to something.
Benevolence – I am trying to put that one in a nutshell – is about letting the other person know that you are not acting (only) on your own interest, but that you truly care about what the other person’s concerns, goals, ambitions, pain points, etcetera, are. Felix recommends that you invite the other person to reflect on and disclose what they really want in a project, for example. For me, that also has to do a lot with transparency, a matter I also briefly discuss in my article Tips for Doing Business in Germany.
Which reminds me how things are interconnected, and whatever we do, or what decisions we take, a great part of it always boils down to the matter of trust.
How may I help you?
You want to develop your business in Germany and need somebody to help you build trust in a business relationship with your German target audience? Then, maybe I can help: Learn more about some past projects and what I can do for you: You’ll make it in Germany!