Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Seniors, Women and Non-Japanese are helping to create a wonderful new labor force for Japan

Even as its population starts to shrink, Japan's high quality products are increasingly in demand in B2B industries - as more of the world's population joins the middle classes and wants longer lasting, higher quality products and services. With this background, seniors, women and non-Japanese are proving a wonderful new labor force for Japan.

Our new alternative business school, J-Global Institute of Collaboration is providing free and 'barter' global leadership and other functional classes for seniors, women and non-Japanese to help them break into this labour market.  See available programs here:  http://jglobalinstitute.org/

I gave a speech to 100 seniors and supporters at the inaugural event of J-Score Japan on 30 November in an Ebisu cafe. I enjoyed some great conversations with the smartest people - many of them launching companies and NPOs even as they reach their late 60s and 70s.

Next we'll be reaching out to support women returning to work, and also work with various organizations where foreigners are studying, or which help to place them in Japanese companies.

Written by: Jon lynch at J-Global Institute of Collaboration, Japan.
Other work: Find my Nikkei BP Net articles on intercultural communication at http://www.nikkeibp.co.jp/atcl/column/15/jon/111700001/

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

How Japanese over-reliance on 'unspoken understanding' may cause them to offer the wrong product

One reason Japan loses sales opportunities despite having high product quality, is that Japan has the most 'high context'* business culture in the world - which means that much information is communicated by 'context' - conveyed indirectly or by unspoken understanding. 

This causes at least two issues which may reduce sales success: either 1. Japanese don't offer exactly the right product, or 2. they do offer the right product, but they don't explain clearly enough why it is so. Let's look at that first issue in this post.

Japanese businesspeople may not offer clients exactly the right product because from polite habit, they often prefer to make assumptions rather than asking detailed questions to find out their clients' exact needs and concerns. A common idiom in Japan is "Hear 'one,' understand 'ten'" or to expect successful business people to "read the air." It is insulting for a businessperson to be referred to as "KY" ('kuki yomenai' = can't read the air)  "kudoi" (boringly over-explaining or being overly literal) or worst of all: "shitsukoi" (pursuing questions too far)  so it's better to do lots of research and silent consideration, rather than asking about possibly obvious things.  However this drastically reduces the chance of exploring and discussing clients' existing or new needs, so because of their 'high context' communication style, Japanese may miss chances to up-sell, offer a tailored solution or deal with incorrect objections. 

For example, a North American or European equipment sales person may start by asking a manufacturing client detailed questions about production items and challenges they need help with: "Do you experience any A, B, C-type problems with your current equipment?" or "Are there any other issues or goals you need to achieve?" Responding to the clients' detailed answers, they can then provide a very specific sales presentation about helpful solutions that match their needs, whilst continuing to identify new needs for which they can sell other options. They wrap up by asking if their presentation has dealt with all the client's concerns and interests - whilst trying to be as interactive as possible - to maximize the opportunity for win-win selling.

Ironically, Japanese are much more 'win-win' than Westerners or other Asians in terms of wanting to build long relationships, but optimum win-win thinking requires knowing exactly what your client wants to 'win', and asking is safer than guessing. In the above scenario, a Japanese would be more likely to talk about the history of both companies, trying to understand the person and the background first. But for a Western customer, 'time is money'  and schedules are tight, so if the meeting finishes before they even get round to discussing specific needs, there may never be another chance to talk before the Japanese has to submit her proposal or estimate. This may be based on careful research of the client's website and documents, and best guesses from her team's industry experience, but the price or spec could be different from what the client expected, and thus be rejected in favor of a competitor with a more suitable plan. 

Recommendations for Japanese to improve sales performance by 'lower context' communication:
  1. Ask what challenges the client is trying to overcome or goals they want to achieve. 
  2. Ask many questions to confirm even apparently obvious things, including budget range and other requirements, so a clear base emerges to build a win-win proposal.
  3. Offer 'back of envelope' calculations of costs and benefits during the meeting, explaining they are just 'ball-park' figures, not formal commitments. Then hear the client's reaction, and follow up with a proposal closer to the client's needs. 
  4. At the end of each sales meeting, ask 'closing' questions: *"When would you like delivery?"  *"Are you ready to place an order?" *"Is there anything that would stop you from placing an order?"
  5. Try to fix the next appointment date now for presenting a proposal, so there's a chance to ask questions and see your client's reaction while presenting it. (Avoid just emailing proposals or estimates without live discussion)

*More about culture: 

High Context Communication:
Hear One, Understand What Exactly? (Part 1)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Why Japan Needs to Stop Underselling Itself

Japanese companies offer high quality, great service and a long-term win-win philosophy that puts customers first, but Japanese communication style results in them underselling themselves in the global marketplace. This blog suggests reasons why this happens, and what Japanese marketers and sales managers can do to increase their sales to overseas customers. Arguably, Japan has been underselling itself for decades, and just some simple changes to how Japanese business people explain and negotiate with overseas clients could start increasing their global market share again.

Japanese culture has some unique tendencies that make selling to global customers a challenge* (see a post about 'Cultural Traits' soon). In general, Japan has the most indirect communication style of any major economy, a discussion style that avoids confrontation, slow, team-based decision-making and flexible, relationship-oriented planning. Since these are hard to understand for global business people, even when Japanese salespeople offer better products and service than their competitors, it is folks like the Americans, Germans, Koreans or Chinese who may better match the communication style of their clients and so are more likely to clinch the sale.

Firstly, Japan loses sales opportunities because it has the most 'high context' business culture in the world - which means that much information is communicated indirectly or by unspoken understanding. At least two issues are caused by this: they don't offer exactly the right product, or they do offer the right product, but they don't explain clearly enough why it is so. 

Secondly, Japanese business people lose out to competitors by not asking 'closing' questions when they are expected, which causes two issues: the client may be planning to reject the deal due to objections which could have been discussed and fixed, or they could be ready to buy, and instead purchase the next day from a Western or Asian sales person who does quickly push and incentivize them to decide. 

Thirdly, Japanese negotiation is slowed by their team-based working style and a sense that ball-park information should be avoided because they may cause problems to the customer if found to be wrong. It can take a Japanese salesperson days or weeks to get agreements from stakeholders for a custom solution, and they are not trained how to give a quick overview of costs and benefits. Nimbler rivals can progress quickly to the next stage and complete a deal in this time.

Finally, Japanese marketing often doesn't support the needs of global clients to see clearly stated benefits for their specific needs and situations.  Sales tools such as websites, brochures and powerpoint presentations tend to bury or omit the key information a prospect needs to make a purchase decision or may not be available in English at all, causing overseas rivals to be shortlisted before Japanese. 

These are not insurmountable challenges for Japanese companies. They have already done the heavy-lifting of creating world-class products and services with top quality control which are continually improved, and they already have an unsurpassed passion to do anything to keep their promises to customers. Even when overseas competitors offer products with better features and capabilities, if they fail more often or service is expensive or poor, then it may still be best for global clients to buy Japanese. The key challenge for Japanese companies is to negotiate and explain themselves more effectively. Let's look at this in more detail.