In my previous post I gave a long list of what clients would usually say to me during our first encounter, so I think I need to follow-up with how I tried to deal with those all awkward meetings. Most of the time I tried not to sit there like a deer staring into an oncoming traffic.
As a foreigner in Tokyo there is a 100% chance you will be asked of be asked silly and/or uncomfortable questions in an unimaginable number of scenarios. How you react to the situation is, however, something you will have control over.
I said before that you have to keep your cool to stay ahead, as cheesy as it sounds. It’s insanely easy to become a “rage filled gaijin” in only a few short months of working. Play the long game. These first few meetings are critical when you are establishing your footing.
If you are struggling during a meeting, do NOT be completely passive and let people walk all over you. You are allowed to tactfully assert yourself. I’ve dealt with countless uncomfortable meetings during my first couple of months in sales, but everything started coming together when I learned how to steer the conversation towards a mutually comfortable topic.
Take it to where you want it to go and own it.
There are a few methods that worked for me depending on who I was talking to:
1. If they keep asking you where you are from and about English or Japanese, then try to counter that question by asking about their own international experiences.
If the person was hard to read, I would sometimes ask them, in a pleasant tone, about their level of interaction with international clients/companies. Trying to find out their opinion about the Japan market was a good way to do this too.
“Well in America, people use this technology. I know in Japan that technology is on the rise, but do you think it will grow much this year?” Maybe half the time we could have a normal, progressive conversation, and it would end on a positive note. A lot of these guys get really excited talking about up industry trends, and if you can nerd out together about industry topics, then the rest of the meeting tends to go better.
2. If you seem to be the same age or have the same amount industry experience, then use that to break the ice and get them to open up.
Normally if the person you are talking to realises that you are both in the same boat in one way or the other, they will drop their guard a bit. Sometimes it seemed that they thought I was some sort of international specialist, when it was more than likely we were working with a similar knowledge base and experience level. If they feel less intimated, then the conversation becomes more natural. You go from the scary gaijin to a less scary commiserator.
3. If they speak with a dialect ask them where they are from.
This is probably the lowest hanging fruit, but people love to talk about their hometowns if they are from outside of Tokyo/Kanto area. If they were speaking in a bit of a Kansai dialect, for example, then I’d politely ask them if they were from Kansai, and sometimes we could break the ice by talking about Osaka or Kobe. It feels like they become more comfortable when they realise that you know a bit about the various areas of Japan.
4. If they are new to the industry, then offer them a crash course about what you know.
Sometimes you will talk to people who are fresh to your industry, and you have a bit of an advantage of them experience-wise. Asking them tons of questions as explaining things usually avoided the “Oh your Japanese is so good” comment because they actually get involved in the conversation. The issue of nationality goes on the back burner. If they realise that they can actually get some useful information, then they will drop their guard and speak earnestly.
5. Make awful puns or play on words to break the ice.
This is the trickiest method, but it will pay off in spades if you can make it work. Cracking puns is pretty dangerous territory, but sometimes you have to take risks in order to get ahead. It felt better talking to someone who was smiling than to a person that an easter island head grump-face. Who doesn’t love a good pun, seriously?
6. No matter how hard you try some people will not take you seriously at the meeting.
If I got that vibe I’d keep the meeting short, but try to get the minimal amount of information for what they were looking to accomplish. The same day after the meeting I’d send a very polite follow-up email and attach a document that has some simple scenarios planned out for the things we talked about. I think it is the best way to try to salvage your meeting, and the email follow-up (お礼メール) is good Japanese business manners. There are people who are just more comfortable talking through email than face-to face, which is fine as long as you make progress.
However, if any the above didn’t work, then it didn’t work. The best thing to do is to move forward and not sulk. (Also, I’m pretty sure beer was invented for this exact situation.)
It’s not that daunting of a task to make some solid business relationships as long as you keep your cool and don’t take yourself too seriously. Not everyone is a jerk after you get to know them. I promise.