The party trick of a president of a Japanese engineering company I knew was to recite off by heart all the birthdays, universities and family details of his key clients. To him this was a critical part of the long term business relationships he had built up with his clients – something his father, who founded the company – had also done.
This may not be so unusual even for a Western salesman, particularly these days with LinkedIn and Facebook providing so much detail on individuals. I sense, however, that Western companies who supply to Japanese companies are nowhere near equal to Japanese suppliers in their intimate understanding of the Japanese client company as a living entity – its history and its personalities.
Japanese suppliers have an ‘unfair’ advantage in that there is so much published (in Japanese) about Japanese business. Not only are there all the daily and weekly publications of the Nikkei group, to which this newspaper belongs, but, if I can be allowed to mention it, other rival business magazines and daily specialist newspapers. The attention of younger generations may be shifting to digital media, but Japan still has one of the highest readerships of newspapers and magazines in the world.
Japanese blue chips are still so much part of people’s daily lives as lifetime employers, providers of benefits such as accommodation and even spouses – as well as defining one’s status in society – that very few Japanese companies need to worry about what their levels of “brand awareness” are amongst the Japanese populace.
Outside Japan it is entirely different of course. All too often the name is familiar, but when asked exactly what the company provides, the average non-Japanese consumer hesitates. Many Japanese companies are aware that they have a name recognition problem overseas, but are not sure what to do about it and it is often not in their nature, or the nature of their executives to trumpet themselves loudly, especially not in English.
As a result, if you want to supply to a Japanese company inside or outside Japan, you need to understand that the Japanese company does not see the need to explain itself or does not know how to explain itself. It somehow expects you to know. The fact that you are reading this newspaper is a start, but you may also wish to make it a daily habit to search the English version of Nikkei.com as well for customer names and competitor names.
As Japanese companies have been through upheavals since the economic bubble burst in 1990 and the Asian banking crisis in 1997, some understanding of who merged with whom and where the power consequently lies (again, second nature to most Japanese suppliers) needs to be grasped.
It would also be a mistake to imagine that all Japanese companies are alike in their overseas operations. If they expanded overseas by acquisition, they may behave just like a local customer, and the purchasing manager may well be non-Japanese. However, at some point, the Japanese corporate culture will kick in, and identifying those moments when the Japanese way of doing things has taken hold will be key to avoiding unnecessary frustration and misunderstanding.
This article by Pernille Rudlin originally appeared in the Nikkei Weekly. This and other articles are available as an e-book “Omoiyari: 6 Steps to Getting it Right with Japanese Customers”
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