Fear and Consensus: Earning Trust from Japanese IT Customers and Partners

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Maneki-neko is a common Japanese lucky charm. A common belief is that the raised left paw brings in customers.
Copyright Timothy Takemoto (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nihonbunka/)

Earning trust from potential customers and partners is a necessity wherever you do business. However, for foreign IT vendors in Japan, the process is especially challenging and requires an understanding of customer fears and the importance of consensus.

Despite the extra effort involved, because of their loyalty, a Japanese customer is a prize worth cherishing.

Japanese companies favor long-term relationships and avoid one-shot business deals when possible. As a result, when you gain a new customer in Japan, you can normally count on strong loyalty and a long-lasting relationship. However, to get to this point, you have to earn trust.

Earning trust may be an especially tricky enterprise for a foreign IT vendor, who will likely have to overcome fears forged by bad past experiences. A Japanese customer will spend considerable time gauging a new foreign vendor before committing in order to ensure the vendor can be trusted, now and in the future.

In any discussion with potential customers (and partners) in Japan, the topic of negative past experiences with foreign IT vendors almost always comes up after a short while. Common complaints include inadequate technical support, software localization snags, general communication problems (often related to language and culture), and lacking features. Additionally, Japanese customers fear (from experience) that Japan may not be a priority for the foreign vendor, who often favors its home market and frequently doesn’t understand why certain features are needed. (Likely, they have frequently been told, “None of our customers has ever asked for this.”)

Consequently, a newcomer must work to allay these fears through actions (and not just with words) and with an understanding of the role consensus plays in Japanese decision making. Earning trust from a single decision-maker is not enough: with consensus as the basis of Japanese companies’ decisions and actions, all involved individuals require convincing, either through direct contact or through indirect means. A single person, anywhere in the chain, unconvinced the vendor can be trusted, can slow things down and block the decision.

This is frustrating at times, especially for westerners who may believe they can bypass this process by getting the highest person in the chain to decide to go forward without a consensus. However, Japanese companies, generally speaking, do not operate this way.

With this understanding in mind, then, how do you gain trust from a Japanese company?

  • Gain an introduction. A powerful and effective way to start things off on the right foot is to be introduced by someone whom the customer already trusts. In Japan, an introduction from an existing contact means this person is vouching for you. As such, it is not something done lightly; if things go south, the person who introduced the vendor will bear some responsibility. Obtaining such an introduction will, therefore, ease things considerably.
  • Having a drink with colleagues or customers in Japan is an opportunity to get to know each other. Copyright François Rejeté (https://www.flickr.com/photos/w00kie/)

    Having a drink with colleagues or customers in Japan is an opportunity to get to know each other.
    Copyright François Rejeté (https://www.flickr.com/photos/w00kie/)

    Seek informal encounters. Trust in Japan, like everywhere else, is ultimately a matter of inter-personal bonding. To a Japanese customer, you are the image of the company you represent and are expected to relay the company’s values through your behavior. However, in order to earn someone’s trust, formal meetings are not enough in Japan, where frank discussions often take place during more informal encounters (usually over alcohol) after work hours. These interactions give you a chance to bond with your customer’s employees and managers on a more personal level, to reveal more of your own personality, and to hear the “real story.” Once they are comfortable around you, they will be more open; if there are any issues with the relationship, you will likely be told during these occasions.

  • Honor your promises openly. Earning a Japanese customer’s trust is also achieved through your actions. In order to know if they may rely on you, Japanese customers will pay attention to how well you honor your promises and to how transparently you communicate with them when you hit a snag. Not keeping promises, such as deadlines, is a big no-no, as is not being fully open about the causes and remedies of a problem on your side. If you want a Japanese customer to fully trust you enough to enter into a long-term business relationship, be open and trustworthy: do not try to sneak out of difficult situations. Rather, confront them head on and as early as possible.

Once both parties have ironed out any difficulties and the Japanese customer has confirmed that you are trustworthy, things will go much more smoothly. You won’t have to fear a sudden change of mind: your reliability has been tested; now you will get to experience the reliability of the Japanese customer.

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