Friday, January 27, 2012

Trick of Winning Japanese Customers lies in the menu!

Japanese customers are quite easy to deal with when they do not want buy anything from you. Things turn vastly different as the moment of truth, the buying decision appears on the horizon. In consulting business, we are dealing with intangible products and solutions. We charge for our time and customers carry back a powerpoint slide deck as the deliverable. The Japanese customers insist on getting to know every finer details of what the ultimate deliverable "powerpoint slide deck" is going to look like. Very often we have to give them detailed content list or show a similar output or even a powerpoint which would look like a deliverable. My non-Japanese team would find it strange and they would take it as lack of trust or faith in their ability to deliver.  Japanese members in the team would never understand their point of view as they considered this to be a standard business practice.

There was no solution to this internal conflict until I was armed with the concept of "how they eat, how do they do business".

One day we visited a traditional Japanese restaurant. What attracted my attention was the real life replicas of all the dishes in the menu card displayed right at the entrance. Each and every dish on the menu was replicated to finest possible details and displayed in a large display window right at the entrance. The replicas were very detailed and look good to eat. The level of details is simply mesmerizing. Black sesame on the rice, garnishing on soup, freshly cut sashimi everything is replicated as it is. It was not just the intricate details but even the quantity of rice, length of unagi, amount of salad everything was very accurately represented.

Normally, I would have missed all this but the brewing conflict made me curious.

"What is that for?", I asked my Japanese colleague. "This gives a clear idea to the customer, what exactly they are going to get.  If the look or quantity in the actual dish is different than the replica, customers may complain. Japanese customers want to know exactly how much they are supposed to pay and what it looks like for them to make an decision to enter the restaurant. " he replied.

 Things were as clear as a crystal for everyone. If Japanese customers need such a great clarity in something mundane, routine and low priced as restaurant food, how could they buy something for millions of dollars without preview?

Our next goal now is to beat the restaurant menu card replica by our detailed preview presentations to win over the Japanese customersNext week, I will share our experience of winning over Korean customers.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

How they eat, How they do business!

My job has taken me places, literally. My job ensures I have to visit atleast one other city apart from my home city every month. My team is very small but multi cultural.  I also like to try the local food every time I travel.
Once after a stressful day, I was at  a dinner table in an intense discussion with my colleagues about how we should have handled the meeting earlier in the day. We were dealing with an Asian client, during the meeting we had taken an extremely rational approach. We had laid out the challenge and outlined various smaller issues surrounding it. We had cut the issue in smaller pieces making the easiest to bite. To our surprise, client did not approve of our handling at all. He wanted us to take a softer approach, deal with the issue in totality, treat every underlying issue to its merit rather than cutting them into pieces.
Just as the discussion was getting hotter and getting nowhere our food arrived. Some of my colleagues got ready with their chopsticks, others  got ready with their knife and forks. Those using knife and fork cut the food into smaller pieces making them easier to bite. Those using chopsticks caressed the food, handled each chunk of meat dealt with it as a whole piece rather than cutting it. Their handling of food was much softer exactly as our client had suggested.
No body spoke a word during the dinner but everyone realized what the client was trying to say.  We were taking fork and knife approach and our client was asking us to use chopsticks.
We got over the situation in no time at all the next day, but this incident lingered in my mind since then. I started observing and correlating how food is ordered, decorated and served to how they do business. To my surprise, I found amazing similarities between food and business, right from the menu card to food presentation to the way it is consumed.
In this blog series, I will try to share these observations for Japanese, Korean, Malaysian and Indian eating habits and business practices. First let us start with Japanese food, in my next blog.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Sleeping with the Earthquakes!

It was chilly Thursday morning in Japan, my alarm was yet buzz to wake me up, when someone shook me vigorously till I woke  up. Only my younger brother, overfriendly room mate and son had ever done that to me before. Half angry and half surprised I woke up, there was none in the room. My bed in the hotel room on 25th floor was rocking like a cradle and i sat there frozen. It was a small earthquake in Tokyo, which did not even make it in scrolling news bar on any news channel. But I was shaken to the core!
How do Japanese people live and sleep with earthquake? In city like Tokyo, earthquake happens almost everyday. It does not even disrupt the city even for one minute. People in office don't even pause striking their keyboards unless the earthquake lasts for more than 20 seconds.

All Japanese residents are trained to deal with earthquake from age 2. There regular drills, like fire evacuation drills, which happen even in kinder gardens regularly. My friend's son rushes for the dining table and waits under it, if earthquake lasts more than 5 seconds. There are no loosely hung wall paintings, kitchen shelves are specially designed to make them quake-proof. So all in all earthquake in Japan is equivalent to rains in Singapore, it happens everyday but you hardly notice it.

What is even more amazing is there are skyscrapers everywhere in Tokyo. To make buildings structurally strong, they are squarish in shape. There are also rules about not building such buildings near main roads, just in case they fall down they should not block arterial roads. "Wow", I exclaimed as my friend was explaining to me how they built quake-proof skyscrapers. I learnt that the main difference between a normal building and quake-proof building is its foundation. Usually, we look for a deep and solid foundation to support the building. But that exactly is the biggest cause of failure in case of earthquake. Quake-proof buildings have rolling foundation. When quake hits the whole building rocks like a cradle and survives. The building with strong but rigid foundation perishes.

 When you encounter nature's raw force, the rigid wont survive. Someone who is nimble, flexible and willing rock in nature's cradle has nothing to worry. They can sleep well even in earthquakes!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Onsen in Japan and courage to walk nude

Japan is the land full of culture shocks. But the culture shock that I got in an Onsen was the biggest and the most unexpected. I had heard about Onsens but never got a chance to visit one during so many trips to Japan till my  last  visit.  I knew Onsen was a great natural phenomena which occurred in specific places closer to volcanic activities.  The mineral rich hot water in Onsens has medicinal properties which can cure various skin diseases. I also knew that Japan had the highest number of underground hot springs and therefore a  lot of Onsens.

What I did not know was experience that came with it was so unique.  We visited the Onsen about 200 km from Tokyo in Tateyama. After depositing our belongings in the counter, we were given the Onsen gown, a towel and a napkin... Slightly bigger than a pocket handkerchief.  "what is this napkin for", I asked.  "you will know soon", my friend winked. I wrapped a towel around and started walking towards the Onsens.  I was promptly stopped by the service staff. "only napkin is allowed in the onsens", she exclaimed in her broken english. Now I knew.


Being naked among a large group of people was my worst and the most frequent nightmare. When it happened in real life it was my biggest culture shock. I did take my own time to overcome my shyness and getting used to that state. Nobody was really looking at each other directly but just the fact that there were so many men around who could potentially watch me naked made me nervous.  I realized that it takes immense courage to walk naked in a room full of people.

My host was my friend's husband.  We did not know each other that well. But once I got used to that state and we got used to each other, we started talking about things that were closer to our hearts, things that we deeply believed in and things that we are ready to do for our loved ones. Such profound and intimate discussions were possible only because we had nothing to hide...literally.

We all are living a busy and rushed life. Everyday morning we get ready, get dressed, put on our masks and look at ourselves in the mirror. That is the image we want to project to the world. Everyday we are busy hiding ourselves from others and we land up hiding us from ourselves. We seldom get a chance to stand naked in front of the mirror, look at ourselves, accept ourselves and be comfortable with what we are. The satisfaction and mental peace you get by facing yourselves  naked in the mirror and accepting yourself whole heartedly is worth experiencing.

What is unique about Onsens in Japan? They don't just cure skin diseases, they help you prepare yourself to accept that naked person in the mirror.