Discover 5 key differences for successful business to business selling in Japan
By: Paul Hesselschwerdt
Now may not seem like the time to be talking about doing business in Japan. The people of Japan have so many deeper concerns right now, the topic of business growth partnerships may not appear appropriate. We empathize because we are working with our customers in Japan now.
After doing business in Japan for over 20 years, we appreciate the resourcefulness and resiliency of the Japanese people. They have just been through a terrible ordeal, but we see they have already begun the rebuilding process.
We are beginning a series on “Successful Selling in Asia,” and we can think of no better country to start with than the most developed Asian country for doing business, Japan.
As western companies from the US and Europe continue to expand in Japan, they are consistently confronted with significant cultural differences that often make the selling approaches that have been successful in the west very difficult to apply in Japan.
Here are 5 such selling approaches we’ve learned that work in Japanese business culture:
- RESPECT THE HIERARCHY: Sales people in western companies are taught to continuously ‘sell-up’, meaning they should make contacts and influence customers at higher levels in their organization. Japanese business culture requires respect for the organizational hierarchy which requires peer-to-peer contact. A Vice President in a Japanese company will only meet with a VP from the supplier organization or someone higher. Sales people and their companies who wish to build relationships at senior levels need to be prepared to leverage their own senior managers far more than they do with their western companies.
- BE VERY PATIENT: The speed at which sales processes move in Japan is much slower than what sales people are used to in western countries. This is because establishing the relationship with the customer is the most important factor in any business transaction. Whereas in the west a sales person might expect an introductory meeting followed by meetings where specifics of a transaction might be presented, clarifying needs, then a proposal and closing. In Japan, many meetings, sometimes spanning a year are devoted strictly to building a trusting relationship. Once this is done the customer often proposes giving the supplier a small contract to test their reliability, quality and trust worthiness.
- LISTEN AND QUESTION CAREFULLY: Every sales person knows that listening and asking questions is the key to successful selling. While this is also true in Japan, customers there expect sales people to wait for them to tell the sales person their challenges, needs, etc. Western sales people who are used to a more aggressive approach of asking open-ended questions to discover customer needs are sometimes frustrated by this expectation that they should be more patient in listening for the customer to take the lead in these discussions. The key is to use fewer questions and ones that encourage the customer to talk about their needs, etc. However, sales people need to demonstrate respect by listening carefully for all of the messages in the customer’s answers and by not probing too deeply into the customer’s answers.
- RESPECT HARMONY, ESPECIALLY IN NEGOTIATIONS: Respect and avoiding ‘losing face’ are fundamentals of Asian and consequently of Japanese culture. To western sales people, these 2 principles may seem to conflict with the tricks and tactics of negotiating deals. In negotiations, accept that customers expect you to respect their negotiating position, even if it may seem unreasonable at first. Japanese customers also view negotiating on a single deal as one event in the overall relationship. Therefore they may expect you to give more in this deal in return for a better deal for you in the next negotiation. Lastly, remember that having more than 1 person from the supplier or the customer side increases the risk of losing face for the Japanese customer. If possible negotiations are best done 1 on 1 with the person with whom you have a strong, respectful relationship, so the official office setting is not the best place to finalize a negotiation, an after-work drink in a more private setting could be more appropriate.
- RELATIONSHIPS ARE EVERYTHING: Though high-trust relationships are essential in all business cultures, in Japan they are the foundation of success. Without a high-trust relationship there can be no business. However, Japanese customers understand that problems will occur in business and therefore value the response of the supplier as much as the occurrence of the problem itself. Here suppliers have an opportunity to reinforce the high-trust relationship with customers by fixing the immediate problem quickly and completely and ensuring that the same problem does not recur.
The Japanese have a unique, successful business culture. By understanding and adapting to this culture, western business people can drive business growth in Japan as successfully as in their home markets.
This is the first in our series on successful selling in Asia. We are very interested in hearing your perspectives on Japan and other Asian countries. Do the selling approaches and success factors we described match your experiences?
image credit: Melvin Gaal (Mindsharing.eu) and NASA Goddard Photo and Video