As I help international companies to conquer the German market, I am often asked what my tips for doing business in Germany are. The international business people whom I am talking to are especially interested in knowing how to build rapport with Germans and win their trust, how to get inquiries, and how to finally negotiate and close a bigger deal. While I usually like to get paid for such advice on doing business with Germans, I am happy to share some key points with you.
However, before I am writing down five basic but important tips for doing business in Germany, let me put a short “disclaimer”: When it comes to discussing definite business opportunities, how you want to handle the situation will depend on your branch of trade and the common (international) business practices in your industry. The way in which tenders are prepared and contracts are awarded in the insurance industry may differ from the way they are handled in the construction or fast-moving consumer goods industries; the terms of payment you can negotiate may depend not only on your company’s credit rating, but also on the economic strength and political stability of your home country. What I can offer you are some basic principles that should help you to put yourself in a good position, no matter what the specific opportunity is.
Formal and polite communication will help you build rapport
The 1st one of my Tips for Doing Business in Germany: Present yourself as a trustworthy business partner – in German terms
Regardless of whether you send or receive a request for proposal (RFP), use the occasion to (again) establish yourself as serious and trustworthy (“in German terms”), and keep in mind that your client or supplier would want to use their time effectively […]. When submitting a request for quotation (RFQ), make sure to send all the required information and leave as little room for queries as possible; however, highlight the areas in which you want your supplier to make suggestions. Don’t let your enquiry look like a bulk mail unless you operate in a distinct buyers’ market. In some cases, it can be a good idea to give a (reasonable!) target price.
Formal and polite communication will help you build a rapport. If people enjoy communicating with you, they are more likely to go the extra mile. If demand is higher than supply, being agreeable and reliable (“zuverlässig”) will help you tap and nurture sources.
When receiving an inquiry, you can briefly confirm receipt and let the sender know by when he or she can expect your quotation. Calling the sender to double-check on certain positions in the RFQ can be a good idea (to also give your business relationship a more personal touch); however, do not ask nonsense questions. If you cannot meet the deadline mentioned in the inquiry, ask your (potential) client whether they can extend it to a certain time.
Be transparent with your German clients
The 2nd one of my Tips for Doing Business in Germany: Try to be open and transparent and appreciate even smaller enquiries
Throughout my career, both as an employed salesperson and now as a freelancer, I have had good experiences with being transparent with my German clients: When I know that I can’t meet a deadline or target price, or cannot submit a quote for other reasons, I let the other person know.
When you receive the first RFQ from a potential buyer, don’t get too excited; Germans are not exactly famous for making quick decisions. Very often, they are interested in identifying a second source, but will only buy from you (for the first time) when their current supplier lets them down. Letting you quote could be a means of getting to know you better, just in case! Keep that in mind while you do your best to leave a good (first) impression. Very often, you would initially be awarded only a smaller project, which, in my experience, is a very good starting point. If you handle the small job properly, bigger ones may follow. I mention that because my international clients sometimes seem disappointed when I proudly present an initial RFQ that does not exactly match their stretched goals in terms of sales volume.
Do not disregard “unimportant” details
The 3rd one of my Tips for Doing Business in Germany: What to pay attention to
You can easily spoil the deal at the very early stages by disregarding some details that might not seem especially important to you, but are crucial when it comes to what Germans generally consider proper business practices. Call us “picky,” but when we receive an e-mail, PDF-quote, or other business communication displaying a pixelated company logo, we can quickly conclude that the sender is somewhat sloppy in everything he or she does, including fulfilling our order. If you use a predefined form to submit your quote, and there is blank space captioned “company name,” put the recipient’s address in it; do not write “miscellaneous.”
Make sure you get the names right (if your keyboard doesn’t offer a “ü,” then address Mr. Müller as Mr. Mueller; same with “ä”—“ae,” “ö”—“oe,” and “ß”—“ss”). Also, take care to get the spaces (e.g., after the punctuation) right. I don’t think great harm is done if you mistakenly address Thomas Müller as Mr. Thomas; however, as a thumb rule, try to remember that the last (mentioned) name is the family name and that you address people with the formal “Mr.” or “Ms.” and add that last name (unless you are already on a first-name basis).
In case you are in doubt about certain specifications in the inquiry, it’s better to double-check, rather than just quote something. If you cannot comply with some requirements, and would like to offer an (in your eyes, at least) even better alternative, highlight the parts where your quote does not match the requirements. Do not let things go unmentioned; if the RFQ reads “shrink wrapped” and you lack the machine, do not just leave out the wrapping and packing part.
Germans love structure
The 4th one of my Tips for Doing Business in Germany: What your proposal should look like
All documents must appear well structured, so if your proposal consists of more than one or two pages, it is a good idea to paginate them. When submitting several documents, help the receiver sort them out by attaching an index of what is what. Conclude the quote by inviting the receiver to respond to you in case there are questions, and display your contact details visibly. “Hope the above is clear & of interest for you. Looking forward to hear from you” (as copied from a proposal I once reviewed) might come across as too casual, if not outright sloppy.
Be careful with abbreviations (unless they’re very common ones in international trade and your respective industry) and provide a deadline until when the quote is valid. You can also use that to speed things up a bit and put gentle pressure on your (prospective) client.
I advise my clients to submit their quotes as PDF attachments preferably; this way, the recipient can easily print and forward the document, and the formatting will not get messed up. Better make sure that whatever digital documents you submit, they do not vary too much from our standard letter-format DIN A4 (210 × 297 mm). To learn more about common norms and standards, please refer to the website of the German Institute for Standardization (www.din.de/en).
Even with small things (as outlined), leave no room for doubt that one can rely on you 100 percent. Germans tend to consider each and every decision very carefully; do not expect them to act spontaneously or “just try something out.” Many a time, you need a lot of staying power if you want to gain a presence in the market. Even if they do not buy from you now, keep in touch and try to meet them at the next industry event or during a business trip. Invite them to your offices, write a Christmas card, ask them whether they want to receive your newsletter, and keep them updated about new products and special offers; but under no circumstances should you spam their inbox by repeatedly sending follow-up mails.
Show that you know the process
The 5th one of my Tips for Doing Business in Germany: Why you should follow the process
Always keep in mind that Germans, in general terms, are very process-oriented and risk-averse. I once had a client from the United States who found it hard to digest that she, during the initial stages of discussion with a German head of marketing regarding a potential collaboration, was confronted with questions like: “Suppose we decide to work together, let us assume that, in two years, our company gets taken over; how would that event affect § 4.2 of our agreement?” My client made several attempts to explain that one should get started on working together and need not be concerned about eventualities before they materialize. Even if you feel annoyed by such an infatuation with detail, or in case you do not have an answer to that question, keep in mind that Germans are truly concerned with many eventualities that, in their thinking, might need to be considered. Don’t give us the feeling that you don’t care about our concerns. The point mentioned might turn out to be totally irrelevant (even to the German), but showing us that you (also) care will earn you many brownie points. “Good point, we will double-check with the legal department; however, that might take some time,” was what I said.
When a German is ready to take your business relationship to the next level, he or she will most likely explicitly tell you and expects the same from you.
More tips on doing business in Germany can be found in my book Doing Business in Germany: A Concise Guide to Understanding Germans and Their Business Practices, Business Expert Press, New York (2019), available on, e.g., amazon.