The other month I had the kind of sales call that haunts the nightmares of Western sales professionals, but is all too common in Japan.

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 didn’t deviate from the script. I asked no questions about their needs. They asked no questions about my product. The most senior executive in the room dozed off somewhere around slide six. I could actually hear him snoring during my presentation.

The rest of the audience sat with folded arms and showed no more than a polite interest in what I had to say. 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. They promised to email 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.”

That was probably not the result you were expecting. However, 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.

High-Drama Selling

Exceptional salespeople everywhere have a great sense of drama. Each sales cycle has its own story arc and its own heroes and villains. Every sale is a unfolding tale of setbacks, triumphs, intrigues and plot twists.

However, the role the salesperson plays in this drama is different. 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 at 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 absurd amounts of collateral and why they often 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. Frequently, it will be that binder, not you, that is 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 him to sell your product.

You are not an actor. You are a director.  

Your advocate will be your champion and will attend most of meetings about your project. You need to teach him how to answer objections and explain the benefits of your product to the rest of his organization.

The obvious problem here is that it is not your advocate’s job to sell your product. He already has a job, and is probably already overworked. The only reason he cares about your product at all is that he believes it will make his job better.

Your job as a director becomes figuring out exactly how your product will make life better for your advocate and his colleagues, determining who in his organization will oppose it and what arguments they might use. You work with your advocate and make absolutely sure he can explain the advantages of your product — and the dangers of choosing the competition — in clear simple terms. In the weeks (or months) that follow, your main responsibility is ensuring your advocate has everything he needs to navigate his firm’s approval process.

All without taking up too much of his 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, jargon or clever turns of phrase.

To be fair, I’m sure this process sounds very familiar to Western salesmen used to selling into large enterprise accounts. In Japan, however, even mid-sized firms 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 to ensure he had the information he needed to navigate his firm’s approval process, and he had told me beforehand what topics my presentation should cover and what it should avoid.

He had already built the internal consensus he needed. This meeting was simply part of the due diligence checklist.

Did my presentation really have to be so boring and formal? No, of course not. But in this case, sticking to strict protocol and giving a stiff presentation was the best option. Why risk an accidental slight that could derail 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.