8 Business lessons I have leant from Japan

I have spent the last seven years travelling regularly to visit my family in Tokyo and each time there has been a new business lesson that I have learnt, often from the least expected sources.

I have been collecting them , and as a business owner, I am now in a position to implement them in our business model.

However, it is not in my nature to keep good things to myself. I believe that in life you only get what you give and I think that, in fact, the more you share the better we become because it gives you a chance to look back and appreciate how far you have come.

On that note, here are the 8 best lessons I have learnt whilst travelling through Japan.

1 Be true to yourself

Japanese businesses thrive from competition because each one of them has chosen to define itself as a specialist of some kind. This means that they compete for success with those within a business speciality rather than a type.

Stations are full of bakeries with a speciality that they have developed to perfection selling it to passers by as if there was nothing else in offer. (And trust me that there is)

People travel miles to enjoy restaurants known to be the best in a single type of food (often with a single main ingredient such as soba, poison fish or ramen)

Businesses offer specialist services which very quickly become part of everyone’s lifestyle. Taking your suitcases to the airport or next day fresh fish delivery across the country are just two examples.

And of course, individuals use the front room of their house to sell the same tofu , croquettes or sweets they make for their family.

They know their strengths and play to them rather than spending time or energy trying to compete in fields they are not know to them.

2. Strength in numbers

When I first travelled to Japan I found concentration of a single type of businesses in one area strange. It seemed bizarre to have the same type of shop, bakery, restaurant or electronic shop along the same street. Then i learnt that there is such a thing as strength in numbers when it comes to helping people finding your business.

For instance, you will find many restaurants that , to the untrained eye, appear to be offering the same type of food in one building. Floor after floor. (This is typical pretty much anywhere you go but Hiroshima’s Pancake Town is a great example.) However, if one looked carefully enough, one may notice that there is one, the best one, which will drawn the crowds in and have a queue outside. The rest are either newcomers or second chancers, who compete for those customers who cannot wait around or who have missed the chance to access their original choice.

A different example , more positive one too, would be the ramen museum in Yokohama where you can find the best examples of ramen from all over Japan under one roof. Those businesses fight to become the best and in fact they compete so fiercely that the one who gets the least customers each year is replaced by a challenger from the same region. As a comsequence, people understand that in order to eat the best ramen from all over Japan without having to travel that far, this is the place to go.

Pioneering can be great but it is not in everyone’s nature and requires effort. Helping customers to easily find your business though is a more pragmatic approach.

3. Know your potential customers

As a foreigner, I am rarely approached in the street to be handed a leaflet, a pack of tissues or any other form of advertisement. Why? Because

a. There is a risk that i might not even speak the language (and the message would be wasted)
b. It is unlikely that i will have time to be invest in understanding and appreciating the particular product.

Instead,from the people in the streets to those at the shops, there is a very clear sales strategy that targets potential buyers by “profiling” them.

They don’t try to find any type of customers , instead, they invest time bringing through the doors those who are likely to be interested in what ever they have to offer .

Filtering is a rather outstanding skill to develop, and most amusing to see in action. There can be hundreds of people passing by, and the sales assistant will “know” who to target. After all, the truth is that you cannot please everyone.

4. Invest in your customers

In Japan, if you don’t know how to use a gadget they will teach you there and then. From tvs to ovens well trained sales assistants will make sure that you fully understand the product you are considering to purchase because they understand both the value of “sunken costs” and “the law of minimum effort”. Ie. once you invest time in learning to use something you will be less likely to either walk away or choose anything else, because you will have wasted your time in learning something you will never use and you will have to learn brand new information all over again and this requires an effort.

It is a bit of an old school tip; but if you think about its, it is the difference between customer services in stores such as Apple (with the so called geniuses explaining to you the smallest of details) and PC World (with their ofter scarce sales team)

5. The devil is in the detail.

Every purchase can be special. Japanese customer services are re known for going , not the extra mile, but that many times over. From the way they lovingly wrap any purchase , protect your paper bags with plastic on a rainy day, or provide free ice cubes to make sure that your fish reach home cool, it is all about the purchase experience.

The little details matter when building a memory, and it is generally cheaper to maintain repeat business than having to invest in starting new business partnerships.

6. Define how much is enough

This i find very interesting, but in Japan, a lot of businesses operate for limited amount of hours or on the basis of daily targets.

Specialist shops only open for a few hours a week and small restaurants ,prepare the days worth of meals and when they sell out they sell out. Both of these create scarcity and people make sure to get in early to avoid disappointment.

At the same time, it gives business owners a chance to have a life outside the business, or even to work on other aspects of the business which are not customer facing.

It is true that unless you have a truly authentic business you could run the risk of loosing customers but having observed various businesses operating in this manner for a period of seven years, I have not observed such a thing, and listening to Seth Godin’s Startup school, he too seems to believe in the value of scarcity.

It also has an added bonus in that it gives other businesses an opportunity to trade. I am not sure wether this is meant to be or an unforeseeable consequence; but what ever it may be, it seems a very sustainable approach to me.

7. Treat every customer with respect

Basic but often forgotten in contemporary Europe: If you’ve promised, do deliver. If you cannot guarantee, don’t promise.

As long as someone chooses to spend a penny on your business rather than another’s , you owe them! It does not matter who the person is, what origin they have, what their level of education is or how many digits does their account have…. They are there for you, so be there for them.

8. Poison fish

People eat poison fish. I too eat , not without apprehension I admit, but I do. People go to places and trust businesses with their lives. We all do: the train driver, the bus driver, the airplane captain, the doctor, the chef …. But how can you reach that stage , that level of trust?

Japanese businesses know they are nothing without clients and they have learnt to find ways to earn the trust of customers and their families by “simply” delivering consistently, because it matters to do a good job, and because steaks are too high.

Photography by Cristina Lanz-Azcarate

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