Buyers Behaving Badly
The customer is Kamisama (God) in sales. We hear this a lot in Japan across all industries and sectors. Sometimes however, the buyer can more like an Oni (Devil) when they deal with salespeople. Bad behavior is bad behavior regardless of the source, but when you are trying to sell a company on your product or service, do you just have to suck it up? Actually no!
Unless you are in a very small market segment, where there are only a limited number of buyers, then as salespeople we have choices. If the former is the case, then I suggest changing industries and getting out of that negative bad behavior environment. Life is short and good salespeople have highly transferable skills. If you know what you are doing, you can probably work in almost any business, as long as there is no requirement for highly technical knowledge.
The Japan winner of the worst sales environment is the pharmaceutical industry selling to doctors. Unless the rest of the advanced world, where patients use the internet to educate themselves about medical conditions before they see the doctor, Japan is still stuck in the pre-1990s.
Japanese doctors consequently, still consider themselves vastly superior to everyone else, from patients on down. At the absolute bottom of the pile are drug salespeople. Being forced to wait around for hours, fawning over the doctor, being spoken to like dirt, clean their Mercedes, arranging all types of incentives to get them to buy, have been the fodder for legendary poor buyer behavior for decades.
Conflict of interest has emerged recently and there are many more restrictions now on entertaining doctors. The goodies are being restricted and so the salesperson doesn’t have much in the way of ame (sweets) to offer anymore. They still get plenty of muchi (whip) from the buyer though.
Japan has a powerful hierarchical system in place in society. When the company President tells one of the staff to get together with you the salesperson, then you might be thinking, this is looking good. Not necessarily. What often surprises me about HR people in Japan is how they run their own show, regardless of what the President may want.
Recently, I had lunch with a multi-national company President here running the Japan operation. The President is dynamic, articulate and a great presenter. After the lunch, as promised, the President sent an email to the HR person instructing them to get together with me to discuss training for their company. I follow up with the HR person many times, but never get an answer. It has become obvious they do not care what the President said, they have their own views on how to run the training and we are not going to fit into that plan.
Telling the President who introduced you that, in fact, they have no power within their own organization is a bit of a delicate conversation. Even if you raise it, you have just said that the Emperor has no clothes. They do not thank you for pointing out their HR person is in rebellion and they themselves are impotent.
Another annoying activity is being asked to spend time to quote on a product or service, but there is no intention to buy from you. This is often driven by internal compliance regulations that require three quotes. They have already secretly selected the provider and your job is to provide the paperwork to make sure that happens.
We were contacted by a large company recently asking for a quote on a particular piece of training. Efforts to meet the client to discuss the needs etc., were rebuffed because they said they were so busy – just send the quote, it will be fine (!). This is a tricky one, because you don’t know if you are the patsy here or if they are in fact so very busy that is why they need your help.
To test the system in these cases, I never follow up from my side after sending over the quote. Sounds like a bad sales effort and I should be fired, but it is a technique to reveal who we are dealing with here, time wasters or genuine buyers.
If they are really interested, then they will get back with either more questions or an order. If stony silence is all we get, we know we have been royally used to assist a competitor’s sales effort. That is a double ouch isn’t it!
It is not always black and white though. In another case the President was a graduate of our programme and told his HR Director to get us to quote on some training. This is exciting and you think "we are looking good". The President knows the quality and the results from first hand experience and has the authority to make this happen. Or so it seems. In this example, I actually get to meet the HR people and their internal client. I followed up to present the proposal to them. "No, we are very busy, just send it". Warning signal right there. I pushed back, "actually I need to explain it for you". Further stalling, "No, just send it". The pricing by the way, was very close to their indication.
Eventually you send it, but now you begin to suspect this is HR revenge on the President for daring to enter their world of authority. What looked like an inside track to a positive decision, gets derailed as the internal buying entity flexes muscle to show their independence. Applying my standard rule, I do not follow up further and just wait to see what happens. There was no response from their side, so again the patsy.
These things happen in business, but the key point is do not take it personally. Sales is a roller coaster ride of ups and downs and your emotions are always under attack. Accept that sometimes you will get played by the buyer, but keep a record of the incident. Every six months give that company a call to see if your nefarious counterpart is still working there. People are much more mobile in Japan, compared to many years ago and there is a good chance the puppeteer has moved on. We should not deal with that buyer again, but we can try to deal with the company. There are usually many buyers in your market and many who you have had no contact with as yet, so there is little need to deal with bad buyer behavior. As the old saying goes "fool me once it’s your fault, fool me twice it’s my fault".