Last week a friend sent me a link to an infuriating article on How to Sell in Japan. My friend denies it, but I suspect he sent it to me knowing full well it would irritate me for the rest of the week.
I’m not going to dignify the original article with a link, but the gist was that selling to Japanese companies is confusing and mysterious and can only be understood by paying the author large sums of money for consulting and training.
Let me set the record straight on this. Selling to Japanese businesses is no harder than selling to businesses anywhere else in the world. It’s different, certainly, but it is not harder.
I’ve built several companies in Japan over the past 20 years. I’ve sold hardware, software, building materials, cowboy boots, jewelry, and even entire companies here. I’ve trained Western staff to effectively sell to Japanese customers, and I’ve trained Japanese staff to effectively sell to Japanese customers.
I need to establish some baseline credentials here, because every year millions of dollars and thousands of consulting hours are spent trying to convince you that I am wrong. The fact is that there is a lot of money to be made convincing Westerners that sales in Japan is complicated and arcane.
But It’s not.
Sales in Japan is unique in the sense that all cultures and all markets are unique, but Japan is not uniquely unique. The differences are worth understanding, but the similarities are more important. Unfortunately, we humans have an unfortunate tendency to fixate on differences and then blow them out of proportions.
Busting Japan’s Sales Myths
The most pervasive myths about selling in Japan tend to center on the long sales cycles and the extraordinary lengths to which salesmen must go to in order to build personal relationships and gain their client’s trust.
Like most myths, there is a core of truth here. Sales cycles really are longer in Japan than they are in Western countries, and this is largely due to the fact that Japanese really do place a great deal of importance on being able to trust the people and the companies they do business with.
It’s worth pointing out however, that the long sales cycle is not really a negative. In fact, it is almost perfectly canceled out by higher rates of customer retention. This makes sense when you think about it. After all, it takes your customers just as much time and effort to choose a new vendor as it did for them to choose you.
Despite the long sales cycle, there is nothing mysterious or novel about the sales process. Sales funnels in Japan move forward in logical, measurable fashion just as they do everywhere else.
Unfortunately, the literature that focuses on teaching foreigners to sell in Japan is filled with stories of dedicated salesmen who spend years building a prospect’s trust. You read of salesmen picking up their clients’ children from school, arranging their wive’s shopping trips, and spending years quietly attending social events fawning over their targets. In this fantasy world, business is not discussed directly, but one day a deal suddenly closes.
Those who spin these yarns are not probably not exactly lying. Sales do occasionally happen this way. The absurdity is in thinking that such tactics are an effective or reliable way to either build trust or build a business.
The truth of the matter is that trust based solely on physical proximity or obsequious servitude is the weakest and most unstable form of trust in a Japanese business relationship. If you have a strong brand behind you and literally nothing else to offer, this strategy might work for you. You might occasionally make a sale out of pity, but you won’t build a business.
Building High-Quality Trust
The key to selling in Japan is building high-quality trust, and the key to building high-quality trust is being trustworthy, I admit that sounds flip, so let me outline a simple strategy that will enable you to start selling in Japan even if you have no customers and no brand recognition. It’s certainly not the only way to do it, but it’s a solid approach if you are starting form zero.
The most effective way to build high-quality trust is to participate in the community. Whatever your business, there are trade shows, industry groups, charities, and open seminars in which you are welcome to participate. These are the arenas in which you can demonstrate both your competency and your commitment to the market.
To be successful however, you need to be willing to give far more than you are asking from the community. This is true both for both the company and the individual salesmen. Giving does not necessarily mean monetary contributions. In fact, monetary support is valued less than contribution the form of education, introductions or things that involve sincere personal effort.
The time it takes to build quality trust in this way will depend on the community and the product in question, but once you demonstrate that you are sincere, that you understand your customer’s needs, and that have a genuinely useful solution, you will start closing deals very quickly — at least by Japanese standards.
You will also find that early-stage customers who have high-quality trust in you and your product will usually be delighted to make introductions to others in the industry. Of course, they understand how important it is for you to have reference customers, but helping you get additional customers also benefits them. The only thing worse than being the first customer in Japan is being the only customer in Japan.
The Real Secret
I’m sure you realize that getting involved in the community and building trust is something that works everywhere in the world. It’s not a strategy unique to Japan, and that is largely my point.
The only real secret to selling successfully in Japan is that there is no real secret. Like every other country in the world, Japan is filled with mediocre salesmen who insist their quotas are too high, their funnels too aggressive, and their expense accounts too small. To many Westerners, such claims can sound reasonable when coated with an opaque lacquer of cultural relativism.
Exceptional Japanese salesmen, however, do not spend years groping blindly in the dark hoping to someday close a deal. They are as methodical and organized as the best of their overseas counterparts.
Differences make better stories, and things like longer sales cycles and the importance of reference accounts are certainly worth understanding. However, effective sales in Japan, especially as a foreign company, is always about the commonalities.
If you have a genuinely useful offering and take the time to build high-quality trust, you will do well in Japan.