Building B2B Relationships the Japanese Way

Category: International Business

We sat down with Steve Pollock, CEO of Turnstone Ventures, to take a look at what it takes to build relationships and establish a profitable presence in Japan. With over 25 years of personal and professional experience establishing successful businesses in Japan, Pollock shares a host of useful insights.


Understand Decision Making

Decision making in Japan is often a group process relying on multiple stakeholders within the company. While it is good to ask questions about how the process works with partners, the details may still remain somewhat opaque. One excellent tactic to engage senior decision makers is to bring senior executives to meetings. Japanese teams will tend to be sensitive to match seniority levels in a meeting.

With smaller companies, recognize that the CEO will be involved or ultimately will make the final decision. Lower-level advocates can be crucial in negotiating internal channels, but again, the formation of meaningful relationships via more social and less business-substantive meetings will be important.

Signaling your commitment to the Japanese market is also crucial to establishing a long-term presence. Short-term economic decisions, such as whether or not to roll out full product features or services to Japanese markets based on the initially small Japanese customer base can inadvertently communicate lukewarm interest. Don’t limit your investment in a way that hampers future opportunity.

Be Patient

“Relationships, not contracts” is a mantra you should carry as a U.S.-based business looking for partners in Japan. The very American impulse to negotiate strong contracts prior to building business clashes with the Japanese way of forming strong trust prior to major progress.

Restrain American urgency to ink deals and move fast, especially when it comes to communication with Japanese partners. Silence does not always signal disinterest, for example. Often a delay or lack or apparent action overseas can mean gradual progress through internal approval processes by one or more advocates.

Build Relationships

Don’t let the Japanese interest in scheduling seemingly substance-free senior-level face-to-face meetings frustrate you. The hyokei homon, or “meet and greet” courtesy calls will seldom address major outstanding issues, but they will factor greatly into whether or not you make connections in Japan. Accept these meetings and plan accordingly.

First, ensure you have the appropriate executive attention within your own company. Any sign that your firm’s executives are too busy or unwilling to represent your interests at the meeting will communicate disrespect.

Second, understand who is responsible for preparations on the Japanese side. Meeting with them in preparation for the meeting will have a definite impact on the outcome of your efforts.

Third, use what you learn in preparation for the meeting to identify areas of rapport you can build between executives. Schooling, hobbies, corporate backgrounds, and industry connections are all valid topics for exploration.

Finally, a word on golf: Golf and golf discussions are universally popular among Japanese executives, and an invitation for a round of golf can be an excellent means of fostering a business relationship. Participation and sponsorship of events can reinforce trust and increase approval up and down a company’s ranks.