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If you'd like to discuss the topics mentioned here, contact Dan Harris at the phone or email below


Selling complex products to Japanese firms


--- This topic is covered thoroughly in the MAP book 'B2B Selling in Japan' ---


Letfs talk about selling complex, big-ticket products or services to Japanese firms.  To be blunt, how to sell more of such in Japan.  In this article, Ifll give an overview.


That statement has several points built into it.


gSellingh itself often gets overshadowed by the more glamorous and glitzy gmarketingh, especially consumer marketing with its big budgets, campaigns, and intriguing TV commercials.  That happens around the world, and not just in Japan.


gSellingh also usually brings to mind consumer selling.  Most (90%?) books and articles about selling are about selling to consumers – govercoming objectionsh, gclosingh and so on.  The process of selling complex, big-ticket (five million yen or more) products to firms is a very different animal.  Trying to use consumer-oriented techniques in that setting is a recipe for poor results, confusion, and possibly the failure of your business.



To consumers

To businesses

Simple, small-value



Complex, big-ticket


Our focus


And gselling in Japanh has differences from selling in other countries.  But different in what ways?  What methods used elsewhere can be used here, what needs to be glocalizedh, and what is really unique to Japan that you need to learn and use?


Additionally, letfs look at this from the perspective of a non-Japanese manager who has, in one way or another, significant responsibility for increasing the sales of the Japanese entity.


Hold on, you say, why bother?  Most ggaishikeih (non-Japanese) firms have succeeded in selling complex products to businesses in Japan, haven et they?  Well, no.  The firms that are still around are the successful ones, and they are the ones you hear most about.  The firms that didnft sell arenft around any more, and their natural tendency is to keep quiet.  (Who wants to talk about their failures?).   


And, even the ones who have gsucceededh in selling, i.e. are still in business in Japan, are probably interested in selling even more.  If you are in a global firm, HQ always wants better sales growth, donft they?  If you got X% sales growth last year, HQ wants X+Y% this year, no matter what X is.  Figuring out how to go from good sales to better sales to best sales should be of interest to a major segment of managers.  Improvement is a never-ending story.


What are some typical situations that you need to improve?  How about these:

Your sales level or growth rate is too low,

compared to HQ expectations, sister companies elsewhere etc.

Your competition is growing faster than you are.

Your sales are OK, but want to do better.

The sales performance among your teams, varies by 50% or morec

Your sales stafffs forecasts are usually inaccurate by 30% or more...

Your sales cycles are too long.   Many sudden slippages.

You are not expanding to new customers / new segments.

Your sales staff are slow to actively sell your new products.

Your average size of sale is too small.

Your sales staff turn-over is too high.


But, you say, selling is such a culturally embedded process – especially in a guniqueh culture like Japan (?!) – that us outsiders can contribute very little to its improvement. So again, why bother?  The solution is obvious, isnft it - hire a good Japanese sales manager, leave it to him/her, and you can get to the Foreign Traderfs Bar by 6:30, right? 


With all due respect, Japanese companies have excelled in certain areas, such as in manufacturing.  But in service industries, and the service-like functions of an enterprise, Japanese firms are often second-rate.  The inefficiencies in a typical Japanese office will amaze.  So too with selling.  There is huge room for improvement in the selling methods used by most firms in Japan.  Much of that improvement can come from adoption of techniques developed elsewhere in the world. 


Yes, hire a good Japanese sales manager, but if he/she brings only the methods from a typical Japanese firm, push him/her to adopt those world-class techniques himself and with his sales staff.


Moreover, if you think selling is so deeply culturally embedded (at least in Japan?) that you have to leave it totally to local staff, and you just wait for the results, there are some issues with that.  First, you are putting your fate in someone elsefs hands.  Is that what you are being paid for?  Are you comfortable with that?


Second, the fundamental processes of professional, complex selling are applicable the world over. 


We should distinguish content from style.  More of the content – the actual mechanisms of a selling system - is likely applicable, wherever you are.  The style through which that content is implemented may be considerably more varied.  In a securities firm I worked for, the British country manager never raised his voice but was quite explicit on expectations: the steel hand in the velvet glove.  The Japanese head of sales would scream, shout and berate people in public.  (cAh, and you thought the styles were always the other way around, didnft you! – pushy westerner, polite Japanese.  Not alwaysc)  The companyfs methodologies were the same for both managers, but their daily work style in implementing the methods were quite different.  Perhaps

Content = technology = methodologies

Style = culture = managersf daily mannerisms

is a simple way to think of this.


Of the total content of a selling methodology (more on that below), 80% to 90% can be applied in Japan (or whichever country), and 10% to 20% of it needs to be glocalizedh or replaced with locally palatable details.  The framework applies; some details may differ.  Isnft that similar to what you generally do with your products or services themselves, globally?  Japan is not so unique (doesnft every country think it is unique?) as to invalidate that approach. 


So letfs dig into selling complex, big-ticket products or services to Japanese firms.  (Ifd like to use gB2Bh as shorthand to refer to such.  But to many people, that term seems to mean only IT products/services to business customers, or selling over the internet to businesses. The intent here is any complex, big-ticket product or service, not just IT or internet.)


The range of such products or services is as wide as the economy itself.  There isnft a single universal pattern that fits all kinds of products or services.  Medical systems to hospitals; environmental control systems for buildings; sell-side bond brokers; large computer systems; company health insurance plans – to mention a few that have significantly different selling patterns.


But there is some commonality, if we ignore some of the outlying segments for now.  


Caveat:  Your product or service does have to be competitive, and there has to be a sufficient need for it in Japan.  This present discussion is not about those points, or how to determine these points, or how to make your product competitive or needed.  These are assumed to be givens.  The focus here is how to sell it. 


And letfs define who you are, a little more.  Here is a simple matrix:



Your firm isc










Under 5 years in Japan

Over 5 years in Japan

Under 5 years in Japan

Over 5 years in Japan

have sales experience

Type A1

Type A2

Type C1

Type C2

donft have sales experience

Type B1

Type B2

Type D1

Type D2









If you donft have sales experience, it will obviously be much harder for you yourself to generate any significantly improved sales results from your Japanese sales staff.  I hope you are a fast learner.  If you are in a multi-national firm, your systems and colleagues overseas are a resource. 


The toughest spot in this matrix may be Type D1: you have neither sales experience nor the methodologies and colleagues of a multi-national firm.  You need to be either a quick study, or have someone that knows how to sell complex, big-ticket products.  Or your firm is still struggling for take-off, and hasnft figured out the selling processes yet.


For both Types B and D, a knowledgeable consultant may be helpful, if you can find one and have the skill to judge the consultantfs skills.  Further comments about how to get up to speed on complex-product big-ticket selling, are worthy of a separate article.  


If you have complex-product, big-ticket sales experience, great.  Mostly.  You just have to be prudent about applying your experience to the Japan setting.  Letfs continue to talk for a while about a multi-national manager with that sales experience, and assume he/she has been in Japan long enough (6 months?) to generally get the lay of the land. 


Multi-national firms typically have methodologies theyfve used to grow sales in other countries.  The key points are adapting these to the Japan setting, and then (if your firm has been here a while) getting from good to better to best.  


But you, the manager in a multi-national firm, face other barriers related to being in Japan:

-- You probably donft speak /read / write the Japanese language.  You are getting information second-hand, through translations and interpreters.

-- Your Japanese staff probably have been in the Japanese entity longer than you have, unless your Japan operation is recently established.  They may think they know the Japan business, customers and workable methods better than you do.  So they may not be very receptive to adopting something from other countries.


These create added weight to overcome in getting improvements implemented.  These particular weights may be less burdensome for gaijin managers in local firms, who probably have been in country longer than multi-national managers shifted from country to country.  On the other hand, you as a manager at a multi-national have been through similar situations (different languages of course) and may already know how to handle such.


OK, your multi-national firm has selling methodologies in use in other countries.  The same methods have been brought to Japan and usage started, soon after the Japan entity was established. 


That paragraph also has several points in it, just like the first one at the beginning of this article.


What do I mean by gmethodologiesh?  For complex-product, big-ticket selling, this comprises a set of steps and processes such as:


Channel strategy (direct, partners, or a combination)

Prospect strategy (which types of prospect companies to go after, and at what level in the organization)

Sales staff Recruiting/selection, Compensation structures and Motivation techniques

Training, including product training, ghow to sellh, and questioning skills


The core selling process, centered around the pipeline funnel concept:

   Specific identification of prospects, including specific names

   Territory assignments

   Generating leads / gwhite spaceh targets

   Getting meetings, especially with decision-makers

   Pipeline management, with specific steps that indicate progress on all active deals

   Proposals and presentations



Implementing the sale (often done by a technical department, but sales stays involved)

Current customers: cross-selling / up-selling; account maintenance

Data maintenance / gsales automationh:

your CRM system / customer database system usage / corporate memory

Performance reviews / transfers out of sales, if appropriate


The ecore selling processf mentioned above is well covered by such systems as Solution Selling, SPIN Selling, Strategic Selling, and others.  Overall account management is covered by Target Account Selling and others.  (I can provide a list of relevant books; email me at if youfd like to receive the list.)


You may have computerized the data aspects of these processes, and you may have subsumed them within a larger CRM system that also includes a customer database (names, addresses, contact histories), contracts histories, etc. Examples are, Siebel, Goldmine, Act and others. Those computerized data elements are not the core of the selling process that is our focus here.  Although the computer systems can facilitate the processes, the incessant need to feed these computer systems with new and updated data can be a pain and a distraction from the core processes themselves.


Next door to all of this is marketing: advertising, trade shows, seminars, brochures, etc.  Typical marketing objectives are increased awareness by prospects (making it easier when the salesman calls) and lead generation.  Marketing is outside the scope of the real selling, but the two need to be tightly linked.  Lead generation and handling is again worthy of another article, even a book.


Of course, these selling steps and processes have a dual nature: as done by the rank-and-file account manager, and as done by the sales managers - the team leaders up to the head of your sales department.  How your sales managers implement these will be a (and maybe THE) pivotal point in whether your methodologies are effective.  No matter how good the method, your account managers will ignore it if your sales managers donft use that method themselves, in daily interaction with the account managers.


That short paragraph above also said, gUsage startedh.  Hmm.  If your sales managers arenft using the eofficialf method in their daily interactions with account managers, then you actually have two systems.  For the official, imported methodology, your sales managers and account managers go through the motions, filling out the data, and sending it to HQ and to people in Japan like you.  Then there is the grealh system, something created locally and in Japanese.  Itfs easier to use, fits the Japanese setting, can be readily modified, doesnft have all those arbitrary steps for judging deal progress.  It gets away from all that pesky HQ stuff, in the opinion of your Japanese colleagues.


This dual system creates a variety of problems:  Double work.  A lack of belief in the eofficialf methodology and the information in it, by all concerned, with its thinner information about deals, more errors, infrequent updates.  Harder to use the eofficialf system for directive/corrective management, since it is at least one layer removed from grealityh.


In the worst case, after a while the global methods are simply not used at all, gathering dust (electrons?) in the server hard disk.  A real disconnect may be in effect – at least as far as details - between the Japan sales operation and regional / global management.  Maybe Japan managers persuaded gaijin managers of Japanfs guniquenessh, or Japan sales were so good that the gaijin managers saw no need to know the details of how.  (In the stock market, there is a saying something like gDo not mistake a bull market for personal genius.h)


So one of your fundamental tasks is to find out what methods your Japanese sales managers are actually using, day to day.  And in trying to find out, you will come up against the language and gwe know Japan better than youh issues mentioned earlier.


Well, how do you find out what is actually being used, despite those barriers? 

-         Point One: Be persistent, over weeks or months. 

-         Get out of your office and attend department-level and team-level weekly meetings, especially those where pipelines are reviewed.  Bring along your interpreter, and have him/her explain what is being talked about and what is being shown.  Donft attend just once, but as Point One said, be persistent and attend repeatedly.  To find out erealityf, you may have to pop in unannounced; otherwise your clever colleagues may show the materials of the global system instead of what they really use.

-         Instruct the sales managers to give you a copy of ALL reports they use or have created, during a 2-month period.  Have your interpreter briefly explain the contents and purpose.  Then discuss each report with your sales managers.  How do you know the managers give you all reports?  Either you trust them, or you must be willing to dig by other means; for example, have your assistant print out all of the most recent monthfs files on the sales department server.

-         Discuss with your sales managers why they donft use only the global system. 

-         You or your colleagues probably faced similar situations in other countries.  Consider using the techniques you used there.

-         Point Six:  Continue with Point One.


So, after a few weeks or months, youfve identified what is in use.  Ideally, this is the global methodology with some localization.  Maybe there are dual systems.  Either way, your objective is to get improvements (i.e. the ggood to better to besth pattern).  Improvements mean changing how and what is being done.  That brings us to change management.


Change has to happen at the individual level – how each sales manager / account manager does his/her daily work.  If the individuals donft modify how they work, the organizational (i.e. sales) results donft change.  The core selling process typically consists of ten or twenty actions repeated over and over: phone calls, emails, meetings, seminar invitation lists, presentations, proposals, etc.  And ideally, recording the activity in a CRM system.


If you have a large selling organization, to implement change you may need to go through the kind of steps outlined by such experts as Philip Kotter (gLeading Changeh, Harvard Business School Press, 1996).  For smaller organizations, or at a team level (3 to 8 persons), the simplified approach mentioned below may be appropriate.


What is being changed?  Daily habits – daily patterns of work.  Habits are often hard to establish, but then die hard too.  When was the last time you changed, stopped or started a habit?  I try to exercise with weights for 30 minutes every morning, but my record over the years is quite spotty, especially in winter time.  And that is for a high-priority reason, health.  The old joke, gItfs easy to quit smoking.  I have done it many times.h  illustrates the difficulty in trying to permanently change onefs behavior.



n       Clearly describe the required behavior.

n       Identify and explain the benefits of the behavior – for the individual primarily, but also for your firm.

n       Set up daily checking mechanisms.  Especially check that your sales managers are enforcing / using the behavior. 

n       Use the behavior yourself and require it of your sales managers.

n       Frequently publicize progress, minimum of weekly, maybe daily.  Donft be shy with specifying team or individual progress.

n       Continue the gcampaignh for 3 to 6 months, and check up even after that.  After the spotlight goes away, relapse / decline / disuse are significant possibilities. 

n       Build usage as concrete, measurable KPIs in your performance evaluation system.


The daily checking is important in getting staff to do what they need to do, every day.  Making calls, updating the tracking system – doing such basic activity frequently is easier than putting it off and trying to catch up at weekfs end. 


If there are technical problems with the global methodology, get those fixed.  Be prepared to state the advantages of the global system.  (It does have advantages, doesnft it?)   What will they (sales managers and account managers) gain from using it – with the primary emphasis not on negatives like penalties, but on positives like productivity, better follow-up, and corporate memory.  State the advantages almost endlessly, daily, for weeks / months, and finally the message will be absorbed.


I made a distinction earlier, between content and style.  An interesting contrast Ifve seen many times over the years, is the Americansf tendency to favor substance / content / results over form / style / appearance versus the Japanese tendency for the reverse – for form over substance.  When does the Japanese emphasis on form, trump substance?  gThatfs another storyh as a character said at the end of one of my favorite movies.


There are many other stories.  In this article, Ifve mentioned some starting points.  Numerous areas and topics merit your further, fuller attention.  I alluded to some of these above.  Others include such things as how to get optimum interaction between Japanese and non-Japanese staff; the nuts and bolts of selling in the Japan environment, such as lead generation, calling prospects, getting to decision-makers, and so on; selecting the best candidates in recruiting; motivational techniques, coaching.  And on and on.  Contact me if youfd like some help in getting information on additional topics.     


Dan Harris

@ @
MAP / Market Action Partners                  Dallas (USA) - Tokyo - London

    Email dan.harris (at mark)     Dan Harris, principal

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