I need to understand more about cultural differences in doing business with Japan
April 20, 2011 1:58 PM   Subscribe

I need to understand the Japanese cultural importance of "saving face" with respect to business, and how I can make myself less frustrated with an ongoing business negotiation I'm involved in.

My company -- a small, private high-tech firm in the US -- is bidding on a project for a Japanese government agency, via our sales representatives in Japan (a small private firm). My company has just recently started doing business in Asia and we are aware that there are cultural sensitivities that we need to take into account when doing business there as opposed to the Western nations we've worked in historically. And we're all making a good effort to do that.

However, this current project is driving me insane. We are at the point where the end customer is still deciding what its requirements are, and we have the opportunity to provide feedback on their current requirements set (again, via our Japanese representatives). I am the lead engineer, so I have pointed out to our sales lead (a man here in the US, who is the interface to our Japanese representatives and ultimately to the end customer) numerous requirements that I think are ill-conceived that I believe stem from a lack of understanding of our technology (we are in a relatively new sector). However, every time I point something like this out -- say, that the customer is requesting model X, whereas I think model Y better suits what they need and they only requested X because they don't quite understand yet how they actually want to use it -- I am repeatedly shot down by our sales lead, who insists that we may not under any circumstances imply that the customer should ask for something else, and once they say "I want X" we must give them X, even if it is a technical nightmare for us.

I don't doubt that if we tell the customer we think they want something different, there are sensitive ways to do it. I'm sure "you don't understand what you need" isn't going to fly. But I honestly can't comprehend how we can reasonably do business without being able to push back on anything that's unreasonable.

But I have no sanity check for this. The sales lead is the only one in our company who has experience doing business in Asia, and so he is looked to as the expert on the cultural interactions. However, he will often make somewhat racist comments and jokes to prove his point, so I have a hard time separating what business practices stem from legitimate cultural differences versus his stereotypes about the Japanese.

So help me out here. Either those of you in Japan who do business with the US or other Western countries, or those of you who do business with Japan regularly: am I actually really out of line here? Is it true that we can't push back, and we have to just agree to unreasonable sets of requirements that will be almost impossible to execute on? If so, if I am the project manager for this contract if we get it, what can I expect as far as further interaction with our customers as we run into technical roadblocks and potentially unmet requirements along the way? (Do I just have to suck it up and lose face on behalf of my company?) And if not, if it doesn't actually have to be this way, what can I use to convince the sales guy that we *do* have a leg to stand on and we *can* ask them to change a specification without anyone looking bad?
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like the Japanese, who are not fond of saying no, want you to say no to the project. The agency may want to use a Japanese company for the job, but may have to open the bids to non-Japanese companies. This is an easy way around that.
posted by babbageboole at 2:03 PM on April 20, 2011

It sounds to me like your sales lead is engaging in the time-honoured sales practice of "never say 'no' to the customer." This has little to do with Japanese cultural sensibilities.

I worked at the U.S. subsidiary of a Japanese company for six years, and in my experience, the (younger) Japanese employees with whom I worked were more than happy to make great allowances for cultural differences, which perversely allowed a level of direct communication between us that was sometimes difficult between the Japanese; more than once they remarked that they liked this.

You're stuck with your arrangement now, but in the future, consider not trying to present yourself as a pseudo-Japanese company by engaging Japanese sales reps. Contrary to stereotype, Japanese business people don't seem to expect foreigners to turn Japanese in order to do business with them.
posted by fatbird at 2:06 PM on April 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

You can push back, but there are a few things to consider:

Say no without saying no: "It will be difficult", "This may require much reconsideration of our plans", etc. Everybody knows what this means, however you are not saying "You are wrong", you are saying, "This is highly unusual but I am trying to accommodate you maybe in subsequent discussions we can figure out what works".

The people that negotiate must be perceived to be at the same levels. If you go over there and need to convince the Executive Director of Business. Then your job title needs to be "Executive Director of Business Requirements" or something. There is a lot of job title inflation in Asia for this reason. If the decision maker is an old guy, then you should be an old guy. If they are young, it probably doesn't matter as much. Being at the same level as the person you are trying to get agreement out of lets them take the weight of "It will be difficult" appropriately.

Be very, very, very patient. Build contingency into the project plan to account for slower decision making processes. Things are much more relationship based. If you the sort of person that likes to be right all the time, it might not be the place for you.

Your mantra must be "they know their business far more than I do" even if you know they are wrong. Any other approach will result in losing face. You can manage them to change their requirements by subtly pushing back on key things once they know that you respect their point of view.

There are lots of online resources about this, I suggest you Google a lot about doing business in Japan.
posted by dobie at 2:21 PM on April 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

It may be cultural or it may be that your salesperson is one people who will promise anything to the client. I have had "face people" who ignore the wild, panicked looks and silent "no" waving over the shoulder of a client who requests we identify people's job roles by IP address, and say, "Sure, I'm sure we can work something out! No problem!"

Your salesperson is a black box and you probably won't be able to find out which of the two options apply.

If you want to push back, take X. Sketch out the technical nightmare, in detail. Then, estimate costs. Maintenance, hiring of new techies to tame this nightmare, servers, delays, whatever. Then push the new money/time cost back to the sales person. "We can do X. Here is how much it jacks up the price. This is how late we will be."

Sales people hate losing sales. There will come the horrified negotiation phase, "Wait? What? How come it costs so much more?" "Well ... there was a reason why I suggested that they don't really want that. This is why."

Every time something unreasonable is passed your way, evaluate it and bounce it right back.
posted by adipocere at 2:25 PM on April 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

"I need to understand the Japanese cultural importance of "saving face" with respect to business, and how I can make myself less frustrated with an ongoing business negotiation I'm involved in."

"Decision by consensus" is typical in Japanese organizations, precisely because a long, consultative, inclusive group process of decision making often avoids any future need for a single individual to take sole responsibility for a decision, particularly a poor one, thus demanding one individual "lose face." Indeed, a poor decision, made by a good process, is often viewed in Japan as a necessary step in organizational learning - it is widely accepted that most companies will need to make a few poor business or product decisions in order to demonstrate that they are actually willing to consider and implement all feasible alternatives (i.e. are "open to change" or "scientifically managed" as opposed to being ruled by internal hierarchy where everything must be a success, and so is too conservatively managed).

One very effective means of getting new facts and perspectives about an alternative product into the hands of Japanese customers, is to arrange, if you can, site visits to customers using alternate products successfully. Japanese generally take site visits very seriously - they are social and business opportunities for establishing new cooperation, and are often conducted with real ceremony and planning on the part of both sides. I've seen bankers and senior legal advisers from both sides being invited along on such trips, along with levels of senior management that have no need to be involved in the direct decisions about the product or process being demonstrated, simply because the site visit gave a social and business pretext for meeting, and possibly opening contacts on broader perspectives.

Moreover, if you have a customer already using your alternate product successfully, they may (while hosting a site visit), in pride, also reveal internal adoption criteria, or spec changes, that led them to adopt that product, for reasons you, as the vendor, would not otherwise know. And success by a third party customer is a much more powerfully convincing sales argument, than any guarantee you can make, as a vendor.
posted by paulsc at 2:41 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

You said that you think the company actually would be better served with Y rather than the X they requested, then you later mentioned that implementing X (their requested model) would be a technical nightmare.

I think the important question here is: are you trying to communicate to the client that Y will be the model of their dreams and describe it exceeds X? If so, articulate this. Say "We have prepared X, we're ready to go. We have one additional suggestion that you not have considered. We also have Model Y, which will be cheaper, perform better, is faster, and additionally comes as a convertible rather than a pop top. We do of course have X ready to go, but could I send over a document summarizing how Y could meet your needs as well?

This works in any culture.

But if you're saying that X and Y would probably work for the client equally as well, but X would be more difficult for you to implement...that is an entirely different conversation, and I can't really say how to approach it.
posted by arnicae at 4:40 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would suggest that the sales person is being "forcefully timid" and using the "inscrutable Asian" stereotype to cover. Forcefully timid being a phrase I just made up for how sales people confabulate customer service from "providing an effective service at a good price" into "I'll sell you whatever you think is most blinky, because the customer is always right! Engineering will figure out how to make it work, and if the customer made the wrong choice, you won't be able to blame me because I'll be selling carnival ride maintenance agreements in six weeks anyway! How many can I write you up for! We can totally do that!"

EVERYONE wants to save face, and the way to do that is to beat the salesperson (or overseas rep) about the noggin until he learns how to sell something more complicated than a copier, and explains what the product will and won't do to the customer.
posted by gjc at 5:17 PM on April 20, 2011

I'm not sensing that the cultural difference is based along ethnic lines, and it seems like there are at least 2 points where ideas are not being translated properly. Your understanding of the client's requirements is not congruent with your sales lead's version, and his understanding of your technical recommendation isn't jiving with whatever he's selling the client. I would think that if your technical recommendation would result in a better overall solution (less cost, more efficient, easier to maintain, whatever) than the fault lies with your sales lead not being able to communicate these benefits to the client. Maybe he's had a hell of a time convincing them that they needed Model X, so going back and telling them they should actually use Model Y would make him look bad. But again, that's his problem - if he's the salesperson, he should be able to sell the better solution. That said, if he sells Model X it's not the end of the world - when you become the Project Manager you can do a requirements review before anything else starts, and if there's that much of a disparity between what they need and what Model X delivers, you should be able to demonstrate to the client that there is a better option based on the current analysis, and if they agree you can do a contract modification.

You also say that you're dealing with some kind of government agency (in which case there are likely hordes of bureaucrats involved), in which case, the cultural misunderstanding might have more to do with how your two organizations define "success." My company does systems development and we'd always like to implement what's best for the client, but we have had a lot of government clients and at times we had to deliver a less-than-optimal solution because there were underlying layers of constraints that both we and our client sponsors could not overcome. Maybe their IT department recently invested in an incompatible platform because a newly appointed Chief read a Gartner report; maybe they don't have staff with training to handle a certain technology; maybe the project has been on the back burner for years and just needs to work for 2 years before everything needs to change again and they just need to show that they did something. These are exceptionally frustrating projects, and the only way to achieve "success" is to deliver everything stated per their requirements, and to get them to sign off on everything, acknowledging that this was what they wanted.
posted by krippledkonscious at 5:32 PM on April 20, 2011

Assuming that this is a meaningful transaction for your company, I strongly encourage you to get on a plane and go to Japan to meet with your customer face to face to understand where they're coming from. I have worked with many Japanese clients over the years, and my relationships with them have always greatly improved after we have been able to speak in person. When the responses you get seem patently illogical there's often some unstated sensitive issue at play, and the only way to understand what that might be is to talk with them in person. Getting to Japan may seem like a huge ordeal, but from the US at least, it's really not.

And no matter how jet lagged you may be, do not turn down a dinner invitation, as that is where you are likely to get the best understanding of their real motivations.
posted by hawkeye at 3:27 AM on April 21, 2011

« Older Recurring herpes outbreak   |   Reflections on Collections Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.