A friend from business school days phoned me last week to ask for my advice on negotiating with Japanese business people. He was about to fly out to Japan to meet a potential joint venture partner. “I suspect my usual negotiating style might cause offence”, he said. “And apparently I may already have committed a faux pas, because when we met with them in the UK, I tossed my business cards around the table”.
After explaining how to exchange business cards with slightly more finesse, I asked him for full details of the company and people he was going to meet. One lesson we learned during our negotiation course at business school, which is applicable whatever the culture you are dealing with, was “prepare, prepare, prepare”. This means not only knowing as much as you can about the people and company you are meeting, but also being an expert in every single detail of your company and its products or services.
I warned him that other approaches we learnt at business school may not work so well if his counterparts are traditional Japanese business people rather than MBA wielding ‘young guns’. Traditional Japanese business people want to be reassured that you are someone they can trust in the long term. If they spot that you are using tricks and tactics in your negotiation, they may worry that you are insincere and that in the future, if something goes wrong in the deal, you will be adversarial rather than cooperative. For example, it is better to open with a reasonable offer price, rather than a deliberately outrageous position from which you expect to be beaten down by half.
Other negotiating tactics, such as having a BATNA (best alternative to negotiated agreement) may be useful, and indeed you may be asked who else you are talking with or supplying to. Too much focus on a written negotiated agreement may be a mistake however, as it will not be the endpoint with a Japanese partner, rather the start of a relationship, subject to change and unofficial amendments in the future. Also, your Japanese counterparts may need to have further internal discussions, so do not expect to come out of a meeting with the final deal.
The amount of time this takes, and the seemingly unending questions may result in the Western side beginning to wonder if they are trusted, and if the deal will ever happen. Westerners prefer to make step by step concessions, expecting give and take, particularly when it comes to divulging sensitive information. Japanese negotiators want to know and even see everything before they make any commitments. This is due to risk aversion – they know that none of the executives on their side will want to agree to anything unless every single possible risk and issue has been uncovered and dealt with. But of course this can be a deal breaker for the Western side, who do not want to show all their intellectual property or ‘dirty laundry’ until they can be reasonably sure of good faith on the other side, that the deal will go ahead.
Indeed much of the concrete detail may be settled outside the negotiating room. When I was working in building material sales in Japan, our Zimbabwean suppliers used to visit once a year to negotiate prices and shipping schedules. The first time I participated in the negotiation meeting I was surprised to find that we spent the first day exchanging data and views on industry trends. During a coffee break I asked one of the Zimbabweans when we would get down to the ‘real’ negotiation and talk about prices.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “tonight your boss and my boss will go out for a Korean barbecue and some beers, and they’ll settle the prices then. It happens every year.” Sure enough, the next day, as if by magic, a piece of paper with agreed prices appeared.
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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