What I learnt working for a Japanese Company
By Peter Hanami
Japan is the second largest economy in Asia with an annual gross domestic product of US $4.15 trillion dollars, a population of 126 million people and a GDP per head of US $32,700.
As a kid growing up in Australia, watching Japanese anime cartoons on television after school was a daily ritual along with eating a slice of bread spread with Vegemite and jumping on the couch. Drawn by the mystique, we acted out the stories after school. These experiences created an interest in Japan that lead to an opportunity to live and work in Japan for a Japanese company.
My key responsibilities were customer satisfaction and business development, for a privately owned company in Kyoto. The company which began in 1972 had its own publishing division, travel agency and an annual turnover estimated at 75 billion yen.
The hiring process
The interview process consisted of three interviews with three interviewers. It was customary for two interviewers at a time to ask questions while a third would observe and take notes. This was real psychological interviewing, where every word was recorded, questions were repeated and your answers checked for accuracy. It felt like you were being totally dissected. Your ability, mood, qualifications, experience, personality and character were all thoroughly analyzed over and over again. Interviews lasted an average of 40 minutes at a time. In between interviews you were asked to perform a range of practical tasks. Tasks were written on a piece of paper and once issued had to be performed with no preparation. You had a few seconds to read the scenario, collect the materials you required to perform it and then start the task. For example: "What would you do in this situation?"
At the end of each day, attendees were payed for their attendance in cash and given a phone number which had to be called at a certain time that evening. It felt like a 007 movie. This was to ascertain if you had passed the days training. If you were invited the next day your interview continued, if you were not it ended abruptly on the phone, a phone call which you paid for. After three eight-hour days of interviews, impromptu activities and secret phone calls, five out of three hundred and fifty were selected to enter Japan Inc.
Arrival in Japan.
On arrival in Japan at 10pm on a Sunday night, we were met at the airport by the head of the region and individually escorted to our hotel. After checking in we went to dinner at a local restaurant where we met the staff and managers of our section. Next day, the manager met me at the hotel and escorted me to the office where I was allocated a work space, work schedule and seventy five clients. I started work immediately.
Japanese companies are known for their long term plans, scheduling months in advance and planning minute details. My impression was that Japanese companies aim to improve their operations by continuously fine tuning their approach as they better understand the market and their customers. For example, the sales process at my company was as smooth as a well-oiled machine. How did it work? Simple advertising with a clear message and a genuine money saving offer, exceptional customer service (phone or drop in enquiries) and benefits presented in a casual but convincing way. Sales interviews took up to six hours, at which time the manager would call out for lunch and the presentation would continue. The result of the system was that 95% of new business was signed.
Punctuality is everything in Japan and is a skill you learn very quickly, if you want to get ahead. Being early isn’t rude but lateness is inexcusable. In my company if you were late more than three times you were not eligible for promotion that year.
Punch in timecards were the norm and head office analyzed each imprint on your card. In Japan you can't say the train was late as it is rare occurrence and if they are, your manager will call the station and check. If a train is late, an employee must get a statement from the station staff that explains the situation officially. A chiensho meisho. This note must be given to your manager and will account for your lateness on your work record.
Our office was in a small ten storey building over two floors; our seven staff had to share one toilet which was a traditional hole in the floor, squat toilet.. Using a squat style toilet while wearing a business suit is an acquired skill. In Japan it is customary for people to bang on the door to let you know they are waiting. If you happened to stay in the toilet too long the manager would come in and ask what was wrong and when you would be returning to work. Time was accounted for like money, very carefully.
As an employee of a Japanese company you put in extra hours each day as a sign of respect and loyalty to your employer. My job started at 12noon but I was expected to be in by 11am and use the hour before to prepare, making sure I was 100% ready for the start of business. The same applied at the end of the work day. We officially finished at nine but stayed on until 10pm doing our individual paperwork and after that helping other staff. We all took turns cleaning the office, reporting information to head office and undertaking management requests. On top of this, we all had our only daily routines for setting up and packing away business materials. In return, the company paid for our transport to and from work, subsidized our rent, paid for our health insurance and annual health check up (Where you visited a local hospital and had twenty separate tests done in one hour. Normally a blood test, ECG, Xray, urine test, height, weight, BMI, etc. Results were sent out to the following week and you had a summary on a one page sheet that could be easily compared to the following years check)
Importance of money
Money in Japan is sacred. As there is no welfare system as we know it, you work to survive. No middle ground. Money is your key to life in Japan and is taken very seriously. Contracts you write are checked by three or four people for errors before being approved, refunds are tripled checked before being issued and your change is repeatedly counted in front of you in stores. When you eat at a restaurant, it is custom for everyone to pay for what they ate, this is known as betsu betsu.
In terms of sales performance, every yen must be accounted for. During a normal work day, head office would telephone constantly asking for our sales figures. Long faxes would stream throughout the day motivating us to sell more and meet our targets. They would be pinned up around the office, so all employees could see them.
The management style of the company could be best described as close. All staff worked together to ensure customers needs were met. Every day I would report seven or eight times to my manager and at least once a day with the branch office regarding sales, customer preferences and progress in relation to targets. A typical day would start with a meeting in Japanese, to ascertain the goals and schedule for each person for that day. Every member of staff would report what they planned to do that day, for example: which customers they would speak to regarding re-signing their business, targets set and amount of sales they hoped to make. This was recorded and questioned by management and by the other employees.
A large part of my job was to manage seventy five clients and to ensure that they re-signed their business with the company. This included using a range of techniques including phone calls, postcards, entertaining them, visits to their office or home, anything innovative that kept them satisfied and happy to renew their business. My manager new all the four hundred plus customers and had all their details memorized including their likes, dislikes, children’s names, etc and knew when their contract would expire and the value of their business. As a team, we worked at maximizing satisfaction and ensuring high retention.
Customer service started with how the phone was answered, how walk in customers were greeted and made to feel comfortable with a fresh cup of green tea and it continued when you called clients at their home if they were running late or missed an appointment. We lent customers an umbrella if it started to rain outside or walked them to the station. Customer service in Japan means 120% focus on anticipating and meeting customer requirements, even if they are unrelated to the business at hand. Any chance to make a favourable, lasting impression is sought.
The Japanese have a skill that allows them to focus on something so well that they can block everything else out. For example, the pressure you are put under in Japan is enormous, for example: you must all ways be on time, be polite, be well presented, remember the company rules, think of others first, work with others in harmony, work long hours without complaint and get things right, (what you say, what you do and your paperwork with no mistakes). To do this everyday, six days a week is a powerful skill and they do it very well.
Work life versus private life
Japanese people are often described as being unemotional. My experience is that they have the same emotions as you and I; the difference is how and when they show their emotion. Work takes up a lot of your time in Japan and because you’re expected to perform at your best at all times, to show your emotions at work would detract from the skills required to do your job, so it is understood that you don’t show your emotions at work. After work it is common to go out with work colleagues for dinner, karaoke or drinking. At these times you get a chance to talk more openly and build relationships.
In Japan, my daily life consisted of working, eating, bathing and sleeping. Visiting a bath house on the way home from work is a customary way to relax and to relieve stress before going home. I had no computer in my office, no lunchtime rush to pay bills, no lines at the bank and no problems with poorly trained staff. Using my mobile phone I could order a pizza in English, change my mobile phone plan, surf the Internet and send emails in 1999.
Vacation time in Japan is precious. The amount you get per year is based on your rank and years of service with the company. My annual leave first year was 10 paid days plus national holidays. To take a paid vacation day you have to put in a formal written request. To start the whole process I had to check the dates and times of my vacation with the other staff in the office.
As a new employee I had to respect the plans of older more senior staff whose vacation requests superseded mine. This took over a week as we had a mix of full and part time staff. After checking and confirming the dates I could then submit my request to the manager for consideration. Once approved it would be sent to head office. All requests had to be submitted 30 days prior to the date requested. Rules required that no more than four days at a time could be taken at once for my level. As part of the process I had to be aware that next time I applied for leave I couldn't take the same day of the week off. For example: If I took Wednesday to Saturday off this time, I had to take off Sunday, Monday or Tuesday in my next request. It is easy to see why Japanese honeymoon couple’s only stay for four days when they travel abroad as it is very difficult to organize time off.
Australian Financial Review,
Fairfax Limited, Sydney, Australia, August, p 18-19. 2004
Copyright Peter Hanami. 2004. All Rights Reserved.
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