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  • Jun 16, 2015

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B2B Sales in Japan and How It’s Different

The other month I had the kind of sales call that haunts the nightmares of Western sales pros. But we in Japan know them all too well.

My contact led me into a conference room far too large for the six people attending.  Pleasantries and name cards were exchanged. I then walked to the far end of the room and remained there — tethered to the projector by a ridiculously short Thunderbolt cable — and began my scripted presentation.

I did not deviate from the script. I asked no questions about my prospect’s needs and they asked no questions about my service. The most senior executive in the room dozed off somewhere around slide six, and I could actually hear his snores from time to time.

The rest of the audience sat through my presentation with arms folded and showed no more than a polite interest in what I was saying. I wrapped up my presentation exactly on the hour. The senior executive awoke. My prospects thanked me for taking the time to come visit them and promised to email me if they had any questions.

At the end of the day, I followed up with my contact.  “My boss loved it! There may be issues about the payment terms, but everyone wants to move forward. Let’s grab a drink tonight and go over the details.”

Unless you’ve done a lot of business in Japan, that was probably not the result you were expecting. But I promise that by the end of this article, both that meeting and the kabuki that is Japanese sales will make a lot more sense.

Great salespeople all over the world have a sense of drama. Each sales cycle has its own story arc and its own heroes and villains. Each sale is a unfolding series of setbacks, triumphs, intrigues and plot twists.

The role the salesperson plays in this drama is different, however. Great salesmen in the West need to be brilliant actors. Great salesmen in Japan, however, must be great directors.

In Japan, sales are rarely closed in sales meetings. Corporate buying decisions are made behind the scenes in a series of meetings to which you will never be invited.  This, by the way, is why Japanese sales staff insist on carrying an absurd amount of collateral and prefer ugly, but information-dense Powerpoint slides.

Your deck will be printed out and put in a binder with the rest of the collateral. This binder will be pulled out at all meetings at which your product is discussed. That binder, not you, is frequently the go-to source of information about your product.

Complicating matters further, even simple needs discovery can cause offense, since asking about your prospect’s problems, particularly in front of superiors and subordinates, implies that he does, in fact, have problems.

This opaque and treacherous environment makes trying to sell directly challenging, so you need a slightly different strategy. You must identify your advocate within the organization, and then teach them to sell your product.

You are not an actor, but a director.

Your advocate will be your champion, and will attend most of meetings where your product is discussed. You need to teach them how to answer objections and explain the benefits of your product to the rest of the organization.

The obvious challenge here is that it’s not your advocate’s job to sell your product. They already have a job, and is probably already overworked. The only reason they care about your product is that they believe it will make their job better.

Your job as a director becomes figuring out exactly how your product will make life better for your advocate, and then determining who in their organization will oppose it and what arguments they might use. You must then provide your advocate with all the materials they need and make absolutely sure they can explain the advantages of your product and the dangers of choosing the competition in very clear simple terms.

All without taking up too much of their time, of course.

To be honest, the fact that I speak Japanese as a second language gives me an unfair advantage in making sure that everyone clearly understands a product’s value and can explain it to others. I don’t have the option of using weasel words or clever turns of phrase.

You must then support your advocate with additional material and help them navigate their company’s approval process. As you might imagine, this often involves a lot of discussions over beer.

To be fair, this process will sounds familiar to Western salespeople used to selling into very large enterprise accounts, but in Japan even mid-sized enterprises tend to have bureaucracies worthy of companies ten times their size.

The meeting that opened this article hopefully makes a bit more sense now. My advocate and I had been working together for months making sure he had the information he needed to navigate his firm’s approval process, and he had told me what topics my presentation should cover and what I should avoid.

My advocate had already built the needed internal consensus, and this meeting was simply part of their due diligence checklist

Now, did that presentation have to be that boring and formal? No, of course not. But in this case sticking to strict business protocol and giving a stiff presentation was the best call. Why risk an accidental slight that could screw up the final approval? Besides, it really doesn’t matter if they think I am interesting or charming.

I am not an actor in this drama. I am the director.

Tim Romero – Guest Contributor
Tim Romero is a Tokyo-based innovator, podcaster, and entrepreneur who has started several companies in Japan over the last 20 years. Tim is working with several foreign companies to expand Japan revenues and hosts the Disrupting Japan podcast. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Photo by: Stephan Geyer

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