With ever-increasing international dynamics, the world of commerce is rapidly changing. For both new and established Japanese companies, international selling is becoming tougher and more difficult to manage.
The Japanese export boom that occurred from the 1950s through the early 1990s has been a model for countries around the world. The effect has been increased production, quality, and sales competition from these countries.
When these competitive conditions are combined with a strengthening yen, it is clear that Japanese business executives must be more astute then ever as they seek to maintain and increase their corporate sales presence in North American markets.
Stephen B. Gasser, President of Japan-America Consulting Services, Inc. (Redmond, Washington) has been instrumental in helping Japanese companies compete in a dynamic world.
From his perspective, we might consider some of the key business issues Japanese executives encounter as serious obstacles to achieving success.
"Many Japanese may not realize that most successful foreign executives living in or traveling to Japan have attended cultural training courses. Japanese should do the same."
It is true that, due to the influx of many cultures and races, most North Americans are not as culturally sensitive to differences as are the Japanese. Nevertheless, Japanese businesspeople should still pay careful attention to cultural differences in North America. Just as a typical Osaka businessman will differ from counterparts in Tokyo or Sendai, a businessman in Vancouver, B.C. speaks and acts differently than a Texan.
Modes of dress and expression vary from region to region. While Japanese executives should not try to become North American, they should make it a point to understand the subtle differences of business interactions in various regions.
In addition, attention to one's own behavior should not be neglected. As an example, even something as seemingly minor as eating habits are important. It has been observed that certain Japanese executives forcefully talk and eat at the same time. The Japanese may think nothing of this habit, but it can make a very negative impression on a North American customer who considers table etiquette a sign of status and refinement.
Over-dependence on Personal Relationships
"In Japanese sales situations, a personal relationship with a customer may be the single most important aspect of a sale. This is almost never the case in North America."
While personal relationships are important in Canada and the United States, they are not nearly as important as in Japan. North Americans are by nature more independent than the Japanese and do not have a culturally developed need to seek close personal ties.
Often North Americans will feel it important to avoid any appearance of "favoritism" and do business on a strictly "arm's length" or emotionally distant basis.
It is therefore important for the Japanese to recognize that business must be done primarily on a basis of price, product fit, and quality, regardless of any personal relationship.
A benefit to the Japanese is that due to the natural interpersonal distance in North American business relationships, the traditional Japanese requirement of presenting expensive seasonal gifts to past, current, and potential customers is not necessary. In fact, many North Americans consider Japanese gift giving practices to be excessive and cause for ethical concern.
Disparaging One's Own Company
"Out of humility and to show proper hierarchical status, Japanese business persons have a tendency to criticize, demean, and disparage themselves, their own company and products. While such outward humility is the norm in Japan, it can kill a sale in North America."
The Japanese customer will automatically recognize that a Japanese person demeaning him/herself, the company, and the product, does so out of cultural behavior even when his/her product may be the undisputed industry leader. This is not the case in North America. Japanese businesspeople should express confidence (while not being overbearing) in touting the strengths of the product and company they represent.
Canadians and Americans seek to work with the best companies, buy the best products, and consider their own companies to be the best in the industry. It is unthinkable for a North American to disparage him/herself, his/her own company or product. Such rhetoric would be interpreted by customers and clients as an indication of weakness.
Ignoring the Importance of Sales Training
"Just as in Japan, North American sales representatives need training. New sales representatives not only need product knowledge, but they should be professionally trained in all aspects of the sales process."
One North American proverb states, "A skilled carpenter takes time to sharpen his saw." The implied meaning is that if a carpenter realized how much more efficient and profitable he/she would be in using a sharp saw, he/she would stop sawing and sharpen it. Simply because a North American sales representative speaks native English and has an established sales record, does not mean that he/she will continue to be effective. Sales training "sharpens the saw" of the sales representative.
Some sales representatives are too busy to request training and others might even feel such a request to be a sign of weakness or incompetence. For these reasons, Japanese management must take the lead and insist that all sales representatives participate in ongoing sales training.
Unfamiliarity with the North American Sales Processes
"To improve sales, it is imperative for Japanese executives to understand how their sales representatives are conducting sales calls."
What logistical issues are involved in a typical North American sales call? How does a sales representative spend his/her time? How does the sales representative use sales support and marketing collateral materials? Are standardized forms and reports useful? How does the sales representative keep records of sales calls and customers?
These are only a few examples of questions and processes that Japanese management must understand as they consider the myriad of dynamics affecting their own sales representatives and the customers with whom they work.
Due to time constraints, many Japanese executives and managers may find it difficult to physically accompany sales representatives to meetings with clients and customers. In this case, companies should use the services of "out-source" sales advisory companies. Such consultants regularly accompany and audit North American sales representatives and supply detailed reports to management.
North American sales representatives always feel buoyed up when management provides positive attention and feedback that empowers the sales representative to better address the needs of the customers.
After Japanese management has a clear understanding of how the sales process is conducted, specific and appropriate training programs should be instituted to enable the sales representative to be more efficient and effective.
Lack of Understanding of Employee Personal Time
"Some Japanese executives who have relocated to North America expect their sales representatives and other employees to act the same as their Japanese counterparts. Such an attitude can create strife within an organization. This is especially the case with 'after hours' activities."
Japanese sales representatives spend considerable time in bars and restaurants with fellow employees. Additionally, much time is spent entertaining customers. Of course, North Americans also spend "after hours" time with their colleagues and customers. However, in North America it is not an expected job requirement to be done on an almost nightly basis, as it is in Japan.
If a Japanese executive expects a North American sales representative and other employees to spend frequent and significant time away from home in entertaining, it is almost certain that a conflict will arise with the employee's spouse or partner. This may cause the employee to be discontent and eventually change employment due to pressure from the family.
Alcohol Abuse in Business Entertaining
"Unlike Japan, excessive alcohol use in any North American business activity is not accepted and must be avoided."
In Japan, a Japanese executive may go to a restaurant or bar and drink excessively with fellow Japanese employees and customers in order to "deepen personal relations." Often this behavior is encouraged by management as a method of reducing stress in the workplace.
This last "deadly sin" while seemingly minor, can have a major influence on business in North America. Here, public drunkenness is viewed as a sign of weakness and considered by many to be a warning sign of alcoholism, incompetence, and instability. As such, this practice is simply not condoned in North America.
To summarize, in previous decades, due to the high quality and technical superiority of certain Japanese products, Japanese companies could enter the North American market and experience considerable success.
Now in the mid-1990s, because of increasing North American product sophistication and international competition, the former business environment has changed.
In order to meet today's business challenges in North America, the perceptive Japanese executive must aggressively strive to do everything possible to attract, train, support, and retain a successful sales organization as well as other valuable employees. He/she must also realize that North American clients and customers do not interpret Japanese business practices with the same cultural considerations.
By avoiding the "7 Deadly Sins," Japanese executives in North America increase their chances of meaningful business success today, as well as in the future.
Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.