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)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please pitch in with your positive thoughts about how Japanese organizations can sell and market themselves better...