I am asked a variant of this question, several times a year, by Western companies with sales subsidiaries in Japan. They may not say “useless” as such, rather complain about the passivity, and lack of interest in trying something new in their Japanese team.
The Western managers feel obliged to visit Japan once or twice a year. They make visits to the same prospects, where they present their thoughts on what is going on in the industry and new offerings from their company. They are listened to politely but no business results from it. Or they explain the marketing strategy and new approaches to the Japan sales team and there is no engagement at all. Instead they receive a list of what seem like trivial customer complaints.
Of course if you talk to the Japan sales team, they have their own frustrations about the lack of understanding on the Western side about how sales and marketing works in Japan.
So here are the 3 issues that face sales and marketing teams of Western companies in Japan and what to do about it:
1 – They’re not as elite as their customers
Unless it’s a very well known company like an American tech company or one of the big consultants, a Western company in Japan is unlikely to be able to attract people who have graduated from Japan’s top universities. This means their employees cannot access an old boys’ network to open doors. And even if they do manage to get in front of a potential blue chip client, they are probably already feeling pretty intimidated, added to which, in Japan, the customer is not just king, but god.
2 – The dead hand of eigyō
Eigyō is the term used to describe the sales function in Japan, but it tends to be more about relationship building with existing customers – which means regular visits to customers for no particular reason, passive and predictable “order taking” and a lot of hospitality. It’s difficult to acquire new customers, as most established companies are in long term supplier relationships. A top salesperson in Japan is traditionally considered to be the person who is out of the office all day, doorstepping and cold calling, no matter how hopeless the situation, leaving their business card and brochures with icy receptionists in the hope that one day, maybe, they’ll be invited in.
So there is nothing very strategic behind targeting and acquiring new customers other than dogged persistence. This means that many marketing concepts that are commonly used in the West are not common knowledge in Japan, such as value proposition, USP or the 5Ps.
3 – Over-servicing
Japanese customers would expect a Western company to be sticklers for sticking to the contract, and delivering only what is paid for. There’s also a nervousness that if things go wrong, a Western supplier will sue, or disappear. Japanese suppliers are meant to stick with their customers through thick and thin, customising when asked, continuing with products and services that are unprofitable because the customer wants them and over-servicing in the hope that the cost can be recouped, some time in the far distant future.
So what can Western companies do about this?
Hire the rebels and treat them as equals
Many Japanese women are attracted to working in foreign companies because they assume they will be treated more fairly, and indeed many have reached senior positions in foreign companies such as Microsoft, Boston Consulting Group and Accenture. Unfortunately Japanese companies have woken up to this and are now trying to lure them back. But Japanese women will be well aware of the barriers they will face to being treated as equals to lifetime employees in such companies. So making sure that your Western company is as inclusive of them as possible in terms of career development, including international postings and training (particularly in marketing), and ensuring their voice is heard at top level meetings, will be key to retaining them and reminding them of what attracted them to a foreign company in the first palce.
And this goes for the older male employees too. They may have been lifetime employees at a big name company and were hired by a Western company for their connections and industry knowledge. They were probably frustrated in their careers at their Japanese company and saw joining a foreign company as a risk, but a chance to start again. You may discover there were some valid reasons why they were not successful in their careers in their Japanese company, but there will still be a value in their knowledge and experience, and their rebellious mindset might offer some creative solutions.
About the only acceptable reason in Japan for taking on a new supplier, especially a foreign one, is that they offered something that existing Japanese suppliers did not – Salesforce.com is an example of this. Being radically cheaper, like Amazon Web Services, can also work, but is not an avenue open to all companies. Japanese companies are very risk averse, so will assume the cheapness comes with a price in terms of quality.
But this still requires putting the effort in – such as the seemingly pointless regular visits to Japan give your sales team a reason to set up a meeting with potential clients, on the promise of a new perspective or innovative offering.
Break the rules
You can also use the ugly foreigner technique. Japan has a long history of letting the foreigner say the thing that everyone knew, but didn’t want to say out loud for fear of upsetting the rest of the group. Foreigners also get a certain number of get out of jail free passes for ignoring local protocols, so long as it was done from open hearted enthusiasm rather than malign intent.
One British Japan market entry expert told me he spotted a prospective customer from the signs on the office building his taxi had stopped outside. He persuaded the terrified Japanese sales person he was in the taxi with to accompany him into the building, and made his pitch in good Japanese to the receptionist, who was sufficiently impressed that she contacted the person in charge, and a few meetings later they had a new customer.
Japanese companies such as Fujitsu are also losing patience with the old eigyō, over-servicing ways. Fujitsu has renamed employees in eigyō “business producers” and are encouraging them to take a more consultancy based approached, banning them from taking systems engineers with them to client meetings. “Business producer” may not be a common term in Western sales but Fujitsu has chosen to render it as “Bijinesu purodyu-sa-” ビジネスプロデューサー in katakana, which is the alphabet reserved for borrowed foreign words. The foreign-ness presumably makes it seem like a necessary break from the past.
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