Years ago I landed a gig as a sales manager in an injection molding plant. At the time I had no experience in sales but was fluent in Japanese, and that was good enough for my American employer. Ha, little did they know.
Early on my boss gave me some advice that surprised me. He explained that there were three kinds of customers in the world:
1) Those very knowledgeable about our product
2) Those who know nothing about our product
3) Those who know enough to be dangerous
He said the customers in the first two categories should be my focus, but that I must avoid like the plague the “enough-to-be-dangerous” crowd. These customers, he assured me, “will second-guess you, disregard your advice then blame you when things go wrong.”
I remember being mystified that a business model would advocate rejecting any kind of viable work. Now twenty years later in a different industry with a totally different product, I find myself still following this advice.
Our company has a soft spot for the “very knowledgeable” client types because there’s nothing more satisfying and sustainable than working with elite organizations. On the flipside we’re happy to help any quality organization new to the Japanese market. All we ask for is an open mind and the will to improve.
The Myth About Linguistic Competence
An American once said to me with a straight face, that if she could just speak Japanese she’d be able to manage Japanese tour groups. I could only sigh and shake my head. A long time ago I thought this way too. And it got me in trouble.
The novice dealing with Japan doesn’t know that things are never what they appear to be. Without knowing the “reality” below the surface, it would be a monumental challenge for the most linguistically competent Japanese speaker just to get the group on the bus.
In concrete terms, to successfully “coordinate” in Japan you better know how to play the game behind the scenes, be a mind reader, and anticipate needs and fulfill them before anyone makes a fuss. You better stay on high alert for opportunities to assist people struggling, gently mine for information in casual conversations to identify potential conflict, and seek out opportunities to facilitate harmony. You better know how to quietly negotiate compromises. And you better be savvy enough not to believe the polite lies they tell you.
Nope, linguistic competence doesn’t assure good communication with the Japanese, or with any other culture for that matter.
If I could somehow wave a magic wand and make an American coordinator instantly fluent in Japanese, trouble would surely follow. For a couple reasons: first, the Japanese word for “coordinate” has no equivalent in English. The Japanese word is chosei and it literally means, “adjust”. The concept of chosei carries implications of harmony expressed through relationship building and subtle, behind-the-scenes negotiating so no one loses face.
This is a far cry from how Americans “coordinate”.
But here’s the real problem with relying on linguistic competence alone: just because you have the linguistic skill to say something in a foreign language doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to actually say it. What an American might express in a given situation is not necessarily what a Japanese would say. A comment that would make an American smile could easily offend a Japanese guest. Well-intended messages too often get swallowed up in the cross-cultural abyss, creating confusion and doubt rather than the desired result of building trust. This happens more than anyone realizes and it’s counterproductive.
Any cross-cultural coordinator worth her salt understands that values trump language every time.
I mentioned above the hidden gaps in a simple word like “coordinate”. Just imagine if you dissect concepts like “motivate”, “educate” and “manage”. As each word passes through different sets of cultural filters in cross-cultural interactions, the gaps quietly add up.
Value gaps are even more significant. Let’s use a simple example. We’ll start with the premise that Japanese and American cultures both value “beauty”. Yet even though we share this universal value, Americans do not put the same emphasis on beauty as the Japanese do. Indeed our standards of beauty are different. Japanese want everything to be beautiful: decorative envelopes for cash payments; exquisite food presentation; elegantly wrapped gifts; visually pleasing business reports; and in extreme instances, even an aesthetically beautiful death. Americans just aren’t that into beauty.
What do aesthetics have to do with business? Go visit Big Island Candies and take note: BIC totally “gets” the Japanese value on aesthetics, and have put this knowledge to work in designing a product that Japanese customers love. (Of course it’s more than just aesthetics; BIC is the most sophisticated company I’ve seen in all the islands in terms of engaging and satisfying the Japanese market.)
Don’t misconstrue my point: a talented interpreter can be a godsend under the right conditions. But without cultural knowledge and a value-based strategy to bridge the gaps, the linguistic piece is meaningless. That’s when you send the interpreter home and save a few bucks.
But here’s the clincher: a great interpreter does not necessarily make a great coordinator. I know excellent interpreters who hate the thought of coordinating and would be really bad at it. Ask any Japanese interpreter: they’ll be the first to tell you that coordinating a Japanese group entails much more than swapping words. It’s not about language!
What Are Japanese Guests Thinking?
The folks at Big Island Candies know exactly what their Japanese guests want. Ditto for Sig Zane. (Another aesthetically sophisticated company doing well in this market.) But these are exceptional businesses.
Before moving to Hawaii I expected that local businesses would be much more sophisticated in dealing with the Japanese market. After all, I reasoned, they have a large population of Japanese Americans, and have been serving the market for decades, full blast since the mid 1980s. And yet most don’t seem to know what their Japanese visitors want. (I was disappointed to learn that Hawaii has very limited knowledge of this market but it’s translated into work so it’s all good.)
The biggest obstacle in getting feedback from Japanese customers is their tendency to clam up when service falls short of expectations. They’d much rather stew in their own juice, tell all their friends and family–everyone except the business that wronged them. Then they protest with their wallets by never returning. This is all invisible to the offending business, of course. And the delusional proprietor carries on believing everything is hunky-dory so there’s no motivation to improve. Ignorance is indeed bliss.
The only thing worse than a customer that knows enough to be dangerous is a vendor with the same problem. When dealing with this kind of vendor we exercise one of two options: develop the vendor until they are no longer dangerous, or, in the event the vendor doesn’t want to improve, “set them free”. This is our last resort, an option we exercise only when the educational approach is rejected, or when it doesn’t yield the desired result.
We currently have a cadre of quality vendors serving our Japanese client base. It took several years to weed out the riffraff –and it’s absolutely an ongoing process–but we’ve stabilized. “Positive feedback” comes in the form of repeat business.
Am I Nuts?
Just enough to be proud of it.
Drilling down to root cause, organizations that “know-enough-to-be-dangerous” lack humility. Humility is important to our business because it’s a useful indicator of two other key values: integrity and quality.
We won’t do business with organizations that lack integrity. Nor will we do business with organizations not committed to improving.
Quality service is impossible without quality communication. Quality communication is built on a foundation of common values, education, strategy and effective execution. Interpretation happens within the parameters of a broader communication context. If you believe an interpreter can transform you into an effective cross-cultural coordinator then good luck and sayonara: you know enough to be dangerous!
It may seem like bad business karma–perhaps even a bit snooty–to decline work from companies that fail to meet our criteria. Truth is we’re too busy to worry about it. Our time is better spent developing a quality client base, and nurturing suppliers humble enough to keep improving.
Would we turn down business in a recession? We feel blessed to have this option, but the answer is absolutely if the chemistry isn’t right. But I submit that because we spent the last decade developing top-shelf clients and vendors, we have the luxury of making these choices today.
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009