How to Do CX When You're Not Made of Sugar: True Stories of German Customer Experience
"People always think I'm dainty when they meet me, but I'm really not. I'm very German – we're not made out of sugar." – Diane Kruger
By Anna Noakes Schulze
There's a wonderful German word - Ärger - that comprehensively stands for every kind of trouble and strife you can imagine. Lost keys? Ärger. Missed flight? Ärger. Decades of warfare with the neighbours? Ärger. Say it: AYR-gurrr. No English word is quite so robust. And no word so perfectly describes the state of customer experience in Germany.
Unusually for most countries, Germany combines a high quality of life with a low cost of living. This makes it a great place to live and raise a family. But there's a catch: life in Germany will cost you in other ways, namely time, effort and Ärger. The normalisation of Ärger in German culture has knock-on effects for customer experience, including:
Too few businesses prioritising customer experience (CX) excellence.
Poor understanding of CX best practices or even how to get started.
Widespread lack of vigilance around preventing and resolving customer problems.
In this article, I'll describe what we can learn from real-life customer experiences featuring Rewe and Netto (online grocery shopping) and Vodafone and O2 (mobile services providers), as seen through two specific lenses: Convenience and Friction.
Convenience as a Customer Experience Issue
Customer convenience isn't always the priority is should be. Many German stores offer limited hours during the week, typically close for two hours at lunchtime, open for a half day only on Saturday and not at all on Sunday.
Doctors' and dentists' offices open for the morning only on Wednesdays and Fridays. Local and regional government offices keep highly irregular hours that vary from department to department and day to day. Invariably when you need to go there, they are closed.
Irregular business hours are not convenient
School hours aren't necessarily regular either. Secondary schools typically have long days and short days. With little or no advance notice, they reserve the right to turn long days into short days, or short days into no-school-at-all days. This can be a nightmare for working parents. Often you don't know from day to day what your child's class schedule is going to be.
German grocery stores have been leading the charge to offer customers more convenient opening hours, with many now staying open as late as 10:00pm. You still can't shop on Sundays, though! Online grocery order and delivery is still fairly new here, but Rewe decided to jump in a few years ago and now Netto has as well. This should make grocery shopping a lot more convenient, right? Exhibit A: Rewe Online Shopping
Rewe was the first in our area to offer online grocery shopping via their website or app. My expectations were high for the amount of time and energy I would save shopping online. That was until I actually tried it. It turned out to be even less convenient than shopping in person. How is that even possible? Let me count the ways:
The shopping process made Rewe's internal organisation into the customer's problem. Online orders had to be assigned one specific store. By default, this is the closest store to your home. If you don't want that one, you have to choose another.
Each Rewe store is a franchise and carries a slightly different range of products. The online shopping app allowed me to change from the closest store to another one of my choice, but that didn't actually help because…
The online shopping inventory was very limited. Even though I could select the store of my choice I could not order items that I knew for a fact were in that particular store.
The basic item search and add-to-cart functions were clumsy and slow. It took at least 20-25 minutes and many steps to put a basic grocery order together.
I couldn't be sure of receiving exactly what I had ordered. Many of the substitutions were for products I didn't want and it was annoying having to send them back.
In the end, I still had to do in-store shopping. If I couldn't order what I needed, or I received substitute products that weren't acceptable to me, then the online order was mostly in vain.
Tech solutions that don’t solve problems are not convenient
So online shopping at Rewe was an imperfect solution. It doesn't really save me time or effort if I still have to venture out and visit the stores. However, there is still a lot that Rewe is doing really well. For example, this cheery array of browsing categories – with pictures – makes it super easy for customers to zero in on what they are looking for:
The text you see highlighted in red ("So funktioniert's"), tells the customer "this is how it works." Clicking that link takes you to a page showing four simple illustrated steps to shopping with Rewe:
It's clear that plenty of care and thought have gone into Rewe's online shopping system. The system is designed to reassure the customer and make the process as clear and intuitive as possible. That buys a lot of goodwill from me. Even though I didn't get reliably good results, it's easy to forgive a company that shows it cares about its customers. I would be willing to try it again and see if the system has progressed.
Key takeaways for Rewe:
Make it as convenient as possible for shoppers to buy the products they want.
Make sure to have the widest possible range of products available.
Ideally, if it's available in the store then it should be available online as well.
Avoid having to make substitutions, or else agree what they can be at the time of ordering.
Look for ways to simplify and streamline the order process.
Conduct regular using testing of the website and app.
Don't forget to test with older shoppers.
Exhibit B: Netto Online Shopping
More recently, Netto has also begun to offer online shopping, so I decided to give them a try as well. Unfortunately, Netto seems to share many of the same problems as Rewe:
The order must go to one particular store (of your choice).
The interface is slow and clunky, making it a real chore to find the desired items.
The product inventory is very limited compared with the in-store experience.
A major problem unique to Netto's online shopping system is top-level browsing categories that are not very intuitive. Just to cite a few examples, the Food category ("Lebensmittel"), does not include things like fruits and vegetables, meats, or dairy products. Everything in this category seems to be non-perishable staples like sugar, chocolates and gummi bears. Is that even food?
It takes a bit of hunting around to see that all of the fresh food items have been bunged into the category for weekly specials ("Unsere Werbung") along with a crap ton of other stuff like bicycles and barbecues.
At one point, I thought I could save time by using the search feature instead of trying to find things by browsing. The results were truly strange. When I searched for potatoes (Kartoffeln), the top eight search results included four jars of baby food, two kitchen gadgets and this adorable toy potato harvester (imitation potatoes included):
So no joy there. Going back to the browsing categories, I started looking for bags of Japanese mixed snack crackers that Netto has begun carrying lately. They're one of my must-buy items, but I can't find them anywhere in the online store. In fact, the entirecategory of "crackers-plus-other-baked-salty-crunchy-things" consists of only three products and one of them isn't even available:
Even more surprising is that Netto only allows two modes of payment for buying groceries online: you can choose PayPal (seriously?) or you can hand over your bank account details for Netto's own mobile payment system, whatever that is. These days there aren't very many examples of online stores that don't allow debit or credit card payments.
Key takeaways for Netto:
Organise credit and debit payment systems for the customers' convenience, or they will order their groceries from Rewe instead.
Restructure browsing categories to make it easier for customers to find what they want.
Make sure that search results are complete, relevant and believable.
Look for ways to simplify, streamline and speed up the shopping process.
Conduct user testing and collect detailed feedback to inform the design process.
Friction as a Customer Experience Issue
Another major theme in German customer experience is friction. Sometimes you arrive at a business that is supposed to be open but it isn't. Sometimes there is a note, sometimes not. There is a phone number but nobody answers. There is a mobile number but the phone is switched off. There is a website but it doesn't work and the contact form is broken.
Even worse for the customer experience is the boomerang effect, where repeated follow-ups are needed with the same person or organisation. Emails often bounce or just go unanswered forever. How many hours have I spent crafting well-written emails in my best German only to find they go straight into the void? Too many to count!
The lack of response can mean almost anything. Either they don't know (or care) how to respond, or didn't get around to it, or passed the task to someone else who didn't know (or care) or get around to responding. Think that task can come off your to-do list? Wrong! It keeps coming back around again while you chase after people and there you have it again, Ärger.
German businesses can be surprisingly oblivious to customer experience friction. They can be slow to change and they expect customers to absorb nearly unlimited frustration. But why should customers put up with your unmotivated employees or clunky business processes?
Friction acts like a ticking timebomb ready to go off when the chance arises. As soon as a competitor begins to offer people a better service with less friction, those unhappy customers will take the first opportunity to bolt. Dissatisfied customers have no reason whatsoever to be loyal to your business. Sooner or later, somebody is going to please that customer more than you and then it will be too late to win them over.
Unmet expectations are a source of friction
Exhibit C: Vodafone
Vodafone used to be our mobile service provider in Germany. In the few years that we were customers, the entire family was subjected to never-ending marketing calls. We asked them repeatedly to stop calling us. No effect. We asked them to stop calling our children. They kept at it. We blocked their numbers. They just used other numbers. Finally, we had to go into a Vodafone shop and complain in person to get any relief.
These people called us like their very lives depended on it and ignored all requests to be left in peace. This was not an accident; it was policy. Someone in sales and marketing had to decide that customer harassment was the way to meet their targets. I would love to know where in the marketing Bible it says that massively irritating customers is Job #1. It's hard to imagine anyone believing that such an awful customer experience would be good for business.
Aggressive marketing is a source of friction
At that point, we were already understandably upset with Vodafone and then a new issue appeared – something that busted the relationship like a piñata. Vodafone had engaged with third-party providers that we didn't need, want, or even know about. One of them used deceptive mobile website pop-ups (e.g. "You have just won…") to trick one of our children. Clicking on this pop-up activated a subscription that added new charges onto our monthly bill. So we complained to Vodafone customer service and of course, they resolved the issue right away.
Just kidding! 😂 😂 😂
No, they didn't do a thing. They just gave us the phone number of their third-party provider (scammer) so we could go deal with it ourselves. That was both irresponsible and risky. Since our customer relationship was with Vodafone, this third-party provider had much less to lose by damaging the relationship. But their conduct was always going to reflect back on Vodafone, who certainly did have something to lose.
That's exactly how things played out. It took some arguing but the sleazy third-party eventually agreed to refund the charges. Ultimately, getting the money back didn't erase years of accumulated friction with Vodafone. Nor did it rehabilitate the company's trustworthiness in our eyes. They had demonstrated a willingness to partner with an unethical third-party eager to rip us off. The damage was done.
Lack of integrity is a source of friction
Key takeaways for Vodafone:
Always respect customers' wishes in how they wish to be contacted, how often and for which purposes. No excuses.
Aggressive marketing to customers is inappropriate and counterproductive. Just don't.
Do not require customers to contact you over and over again to fix the same problem.
Choose third-party providers carefully and make sure that they reflect well on you.
When a customer has a complaint about one of your partners, it's your job (not the customer's) to fix the problem with urgency.
Do not tolerate unethical conduct from your partners.
Do not exploit your customers' children – ever.
Exhibit D: O2
At the earliest opportunity, we switched our mobile service to Vodafone's competitor O2. So far, our experience with O2 has been straightforward and positively uneventful. We're happy with the service and they certainly don't disturb my calm in any way.
I never thought that boring could be a great customer experience. It turns out that it can be if one of the benefits of the service is peace of mind. O2 has been as reliable as the O2 I'm breathing right now, so I don't have to think about them at all. Maybe we're just lucky as it could have been a very different experience. But there is this one little thing that we still miss…
Here's what Vodafone got consistently right: they made it incredibly easy to look at our bill. Every month Vodafone would send us an email with the invoice attached as a PDF file. We only had to click once to open the email then click once more to open the file, and voila!
Now to see the O2 bill I have to click to open the email, click on the download invoice button, wait for the O2 website to load in my browser, log in and finally click on download. That's 28 keystrokes for O2 compared with two for Vodafone, so it's much less convenient. For most of the past year, O2's invoices couldn't be viewed or downloaded from Chrome either, so there were even more steps involved to open up a different browser and try again.
Unnecessary steps are a source of friction
Key takeaways for O2:
Boring can be a great experience if it means that everything is running perfectly.
One of the best benefits a service business can provide is peace of mind.
Less is sometimes more in CX (i.e. customers don't always want to interact with you).
Look for ways to streamline processes and eliminate unnecessary steps.
Where Does German CX Go from Here?
You don't have to be made of sugar to offer an excellent customer experience. You just need commitment to putting the customer first as your starting point. In that respect, Germany still has some catching up to do. Talk is cheap. It's easy to say words like the customer is king ("Der Kunde ist König"). It's much harder to live those words and act upon them faithfully.
This is where a stoic attitude towards frustration and worse, Ärger, is a strong disadvantage. Customer experience requires a plan to deliver excellence and the vigilance to see it through, correcting and improving as you go. Where Ärger is the norm, complacency and lack of accountability tend to follow. No one feels responsible for the things that go wrong, so no one takes responsibility for making things right.
The habit of thinking about another person and what they need is a skill that has to be learned. Despite decades of progress in user-centred design almost everywhere else, I've seen websites for German restaurants that give long family histories, and pictures of the dog, but forget to mention their business hours. It just didn't occur to them that customers would want to know when the restaurant is open.
Some businesses websites still feature tons of colour pollution, scrolling GIFs, flashing words, and spinning icons. Some have entire sections missing or use 1990s-era animated “under construction” gifs where the content is supposed to be. Sometimes it’s like the entire profession of user experience never happened here.
These are not just small business failings. Global brands with big IT budgets can make juddering errors as well. I once spent over two hours trying to book a service appointment on the Bosch.de website. This involved entering details in a multi-page service form. Each data field had very specific formatting requirements but no guidelines or hints to say what they were. Get it wrong and the entire form would reset and you had to start over from the beginning.
Did no one ever think to test the system? Booking an appointment was just like trying to get the third key in Ready Player One, except if you win you don't get to own a global corporation — you just get one to come and service your washing machine.
Finally, Bosch will come to my house...
Brand differentiation is increasingly driven by customer experience rather than price. Amazon's exceptional customer service is having a profound effect on consumer expectations, even in thrifty Germany. To make the big leap forward into the present, German businesses will need to focus on delivering great experiences.
Convenience and friction are two areas with the greatest potential to upgrade German customer experience. But to do this, businesses will have to decide that no amount Ärger is normal, natural or tolerable when it comes to their relationship with customers.