When I first worked at a Japanese multinational, the main method of international communication was telex. I am not as ancient as this makes me sound – it actually took several years in the 1990s for e-mail to become accepted in preference to telex within the company. E-mail was regarded as much less secure and reliable, whereas it was easy to check that the recipient had received a telex on our dedicated telecommunications network. Just to be extra sure, we were also told that every telex should be responded to within 24 hours, even if it was just with a “YRS NTD TKS” (“Yours noted, thanks”).
Nowadays, of course, e-mail has become much more reliable but nonetheless, there always remains that niggling doubt as to whether an important e-mail has reached and been read by the recipient. I do not advocate requesting a delivery or read receipt, particularly to customers, as this smacks of bullying, or mistrust. There are, however, lessons to be learnt from the telex era, particularly when it comes to working with Japanese colleagues or customers.
I encourage people working in virtual teams to agree a common e-mail response time, say 24 or 36 hours. This is usually greeted by groans from people who have so many incoming e-mails, they worry they will spend the whole day responding to them. The point is that the response does not have to be the full answer to the e-mail, it can just be the e-mail equivalent of a “YRS NTD TKS” – to show you have received it or are working on the response. It may even be a good idea to indicate when you intend to respond fully.
I advocate this prompt response whatever the nationality mix of the people involved, but it is especially important when communicating with Japanese customers or colleagues. Japanese customers are mostly highly risk averse, and looking for reliability and responsiveness in their suppliers. As a foreigner, you represent an unknown, and a risk. A quick reply shows that you are responsive and giving the other person priority. The reply should also be positive, in the first instance. Even if you think the ultimate answer is going to be “no”, it is good to show willing, with a phrase such as “we will investigate this further and revert”.
Being prompt, but also responding in a consistent way, demonstrates a third characteristic that Japanese customers value, which is a predictable process for dealing with their requests.
I conducted a Japanese client satisfaction survey for a firm of British patent attorneys a couple of years’ ago. The results were very clear. Happy customers were those who knew that their patent applications were going to be dealt with in exactly the same way each time by the British attorneys, from the method of response (letter, fax, e-mail etc), through to the wording, the person in charge and the timing.
Being prompt, positive and predictable will go a long way towards reassuring Japanese customers and colleagues that they made the right choice in you.
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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