A guide for German Business Meeting Etiquette
German business practices often are different to those practiced in other countries, so it is important that you are aware of these when dealing with potential clients or business partners.
We will guide you and help you with the most suited approach, so that you are well versed when it comes to how best to conduct yourself in business relations with German clients. In the following you will find some generally applicable codes of conduct. Please note that these should be seen as a broad guide. Feel free to reach out to us to get more specific advices!
Form of adress
Germans are very obsessed with credentials. While in other countries like the US it may seem odd to address someone with their PhD title it is absolutly common and good manners to do so in Germany. Thus, the proper form to address them is „Mr./Mrs. Dr. [last name]“.
Vice versa, be sure to communicate your particular position or title. This will help establish your authority and set the tone for your subsequent business interactions. If you don’t speak German, we can act in an interpreting capacity if needed to demonstrate your professionalism and facilitate communication.
There is no general rule how people adress eachother in a work context. While some business meetings may be very formal you might also attend business meetings in Germany that are less formal. A general advice we give our clients is to rather be more formal in the beginning if you are unsure what the context and setting requires. It is always easier to switch to less formal from there.
Communication via e-mail and phone
The right tone for a business e-mail in Germany differs a lot from habits in other countries like the USA for example. Any e-mail you write to a business contact in Germany should be written in a formal style. This particularly means that it must contain a proper form of address (e.g. „Dear Mr. XY“) as well as a greeting phrase add the end (e.g. „Best regards“). It is not appropriate to start an e-mail without a proper form of address or just by their name. Another standard for business e-mails in Germany is that it should always include an e-mail signature. An appropriate signature should necessarily include your full name, titel, position, company name, contact info.
Be aware that Germans often take some time to respond to an e-mail but you will end up getting a more extensive response with validated information and/or a thought out decision, which ever the context may be. Many German business people prefer this sort of communication over a quick back and forth of e-mail exchange.
Generally spoken, you should not just pick up the phone and call your client at any time but instead make an appointment with them (or through their assistant) for a phone call. You should never call your German business partner at home unless it is an emergency.
Punctuality is specifically important and considered good manners in Germany. Always be on time for business meetings. Call the person you are meeting with if you are going to be more than 10 minutes late to an in-person meeting. If a call is set-up with a German business contact, it is appropriate to send a brief e-mail to the person if you are even just going to be 5 minutes late. Note that a lack of punctuality may cost you a business relation in Germany, so make it your priority to be on time for those meetings. And if in exceptions you cannot make it on time: let them know as soon as possible. The same applies in case you may have to fully cancel a meeting.
An on-time delivery of information, products, proposals, etc to clients is likewise important.
Business meeting practices
In Germany it is common business meeting practice to have an agenda prepared in advance to a meeting. Gernerally we also advice to take notes and share those with your meeting partners as a follow-up along with a thank you for the meeting you had with them. It is worthy going that extra mile to impress German business people with your structured and thorough approach to the meeting. Although there are situations where this rule does not apply. If you are meeting your client for lunch in a reataurant that setting does not allow for you to take notes. If you need advice on a specific case, we will be glad to help you!
In some cases we advice our clients to provide their contacts with a German translation of certain pertinent documents. This may not be required but impressing your client this way might sometimes be worth it! BDG can advice you in this and provide translations.
As in other countries around the globe, having the dress-code right, when attending a business meeting or event is very important. There is no general advice for a proper dress code for business meetings in Germany as this is very much dependent on different factors. In Berlin-Mitte you might deal with a young and funky audience, whilst in Munich the most exquisite tie can be required! We understand the German culture and business etiquette and are happy to advice you in this matter!
Germans often appear reserved and unfriendly to foreigners until they get to know them better (and sometimes still then). Do not get irritated by any reserve you might sense – this is not necessarily a bad sign! Be aware of the culturel differences. Germans are generally more reserved and their focus might often lie on the business. There is also a tendency to start with the precise business topics fastly in a meeting.
Avoid exaggerations and high-pressure talk/strategies, this will be considered offensive.
Written or spoken presentations should be specific, factual, technical and realistic. It may not be required but a worthy gesture to hand a printout of your presentation out to everyone in the meeting. Do this before starting your presentation so your audience can take notes in it.
Other business materials such as reports/briefings/etc. should be backed up with facts, figures, tables and charts. Having a structured presentation with an appropriate layout prepared is absolutely necessary. We can help you with that.
Gifts are normally not exchanged at business meetings, but small gifts may be appropriate at the successful conclusion of negotiations.
When invited to someone’s home, always bring a small gift for the hostess. For a large party, send flowers before the party or the next day.
Business lunches and dinners
It is possible but uncommen to meet your business partner for breakfast. A business lunch is usually preferred by German business people. Other business code of conducts for Germany may tell you not to discuss business during a business lunch but instead have a social conversation. This is actually not a rule that generally applies. We advice you to be sensitive to what type of conversation the situation requires.
Generally spoken, if you are specifically meeting your business partner for lunch, logically you will be discussing business during or after lunch. If you are in a full day meeting with a client and you go out to lunch together, it’s a different story. This will be your opportunity to connect with your business partner on a more personal level. Mind not to get too personal though, Germans are reserved and like to keep a distance between their personal and professional lifes.
At a dinner party, mind not to drink before the hose has done a toast and drunk, then everyone else is welcome to drink as well. Same applies at a business dinner at a restaurant. Spouses are not generally included in a business dinner unless this has specifically been communicated.
Guten Appetit is said before eating and means “enjoy your meal”. It is the host’s way of saying, “please start”. Guests can respond by saying “Danke. Guten Appetit”. Of course it is okay to respond in English as well – but if you feel comfortable saying it in German, this could be friendly small gesture towards your German clients.
Whether at lunch or at dinner: keep your hands on the table at all times during a meal — not in your lap. However, take care to keep your elbows off the table.
Usually smoking is not permitted in German restaurants. Although there are some places where it is explicitly allowed to smoke. Smoking may also be allowed in outside areas of a restaurant. In any case, do not smoke until after dinner is finished and coffee is served. Ask permission of your meeting partners if it is okay for you to smoke.
Decision making often is slow with thorough analysis of all facts. Decisions are often debated informally and are generally made before meetings with compliance rather than consensus expected in the meeting.
Germans are not comfortable handling the unexpected. Plans are cautious with fallback positions, contingency plans, and comprehensive action steps – carried out to the letter.