Russian is my first language, but Germany has been my (second) home since 2002. I started working for MANN+HUMMEL back in 2010 at the Speyer location and one of my responsibilities since then has been looking after our direct customers based in Eastern Europe.
As a Russian native speaker, I am involved with all contact with our Ukrainian and Baltic customers every step of the way even if their initial enquiry is formulated in English. If I suspect that prospective customers would prefer to communicate in Russian, I give them the chance to do so from the moment first contact is made. This tends to go down well with the person I am speaking to, as most Eastern Europeans especially from the older generations will have learnt Russian at school and the language is familiar in those countries, in much the same way as English is familiar to us here in Germany. Although Russian is gradually becoming less dominant there, especially amongst the younger generations, I find that there are still fewer misunderstandings when we communicate with our Baltic and Ukrainian customers in Russian when discussing queries, orders, appointments and deadlines. The majority of customers find it easier to tell me exactly what they need in Russian, when they use a foreign language like English or German, the vocabulary isn’t sometimes quite right. This can lead to minor, or even more serious, errors being made, such as an ‘invoice’ being requested before despatch when what is actually required is a ‘proforma invoice’.
Sometimes issues can just be caused by something as simple as the way letters are used differently in the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. When I received my first filter order from an Eastern European customer back in 2010, I couldn’t find the product they had ordered on our system. I was looking for an air filter, which we labelled with the letter ‘C’. It was only after a bit of investigative work that it became clear that the customer had not switched their keyboard and had used the ‘C’ from the Russian alphabet rather than the Latin alphabet, and of course our system hadn’t recognised the letter. Now I’m well aware of this little stumbling block, and I can work out what the customer actually means and type in the letter ‘C’ myself if I need to.
My cultural background often helps us to get a better grasp of cultural distinctions in Eastern Europe here in the Sales department. Let’s take the service culture as an example. Customers in Western Europe have become accustomed to always being right, whilst Russians in the past did not dare demand anything from a salesperson. On this basis, employees in sales never considered it absolutely necessary to be friendly and helpful at all times. I have to say that I do still notice this mentality amongst some of our Eastern European customers, who apologise profusely if they have to question anything about to their order. In these cases, it is important for me to make sure that the customer feels that their queries are welcome and that they know that catering to their every need is simply part of the service we offer. Here in the Internal Sales department, we are the link between the Sales department and the customer as well as between the individual internal departments at MANN+HUMMEL.
It goes without saying that when you welcome visitors from Eastern Europe to Germany as a sales employee it is important you don’t forget to take cultural differences into account. This is noticeable when it comes to even the most basic of customs, such as typical food and drink. For example, in Russia it is unheard of to mix beer with other drinks – people I know back home still don’t believe me that in Germany they mix beer with lemonade or cola. On the other hand, if you pay a visit to customers in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) or Baltic states, you can expect to be asked if you would like to join them for a recreational activity after your meeting – so you should make sure you have a suitable answer ready ;-). After all, in Eastern Europe they are very much of the mindset that life is about more than just work and that it is also important to relax and have fun. The Germans are a lot more conservative in this regard. A woman travelling in the CIS for business might also find that her business partner is reluctant to shake her hand as a greeting, or will just avoid doing so altogether. This is because in those countries a handshake is considered to be a way for men to greet each other, whilst women only do so verbally. However, I have noticed that greeting customs within the business world are changing and being adapted to western traditions. In this respect, the best aspect of my job has to be the opportunity to bridge the gap between the two cultures.