A Guide for Japanese Companies Planning Overseas Road Trips

I just returned from multi-city tour across the U.S. and Canada. I was helping the president of a Japanese manufacturing company identify potential local partners. The trip didn't quite compare to long-ago road trips with college buddies – but, after many client presentations, no less than four lobster dinners in one week, and long hours chauffeuring a big van packed with luggage to remote locations, I definitely bonded with my client. I also came away with some good tips for Japanese companies planning a business development trek to the U.S.

First, the client received my assistance through a Japanese government entity called the SMRJ (Organization for Small and Medium Enterprises and Regional Innovation, Japan) for which I serve as an international business advisor. The SMRJ, like its better-known and more succinctly-named counterpart, JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization), supports small and medium-sized companies' efforts to navigate international markets. It's a great first stop for Japanese companies seeking experienced, low-cost help.

Another thing my client did right was to get local assistance with scheduling. Unfortunately, many Japanese companies seem to undervalue this support. Setting up one good meeting may take ten or more calls and the use of personal networks. Not only is a local partner able to call prospects during normal work hours, but he can also dig around to find the right person and convince him or her to take a meeting.

I recall one Japanese company that reached me a few years ago in a desperate state. After contacting nearly 100 prospects in the U.S. with very limited success, they realized too late that they needed local help.

A third thing that helped my client was having supporting materials in English, including a product brochure, a copy of its U.S. patent and a letter from the president. Even more importantly, the company responded quickly to questions, helping to demonstrate its motivation and ability to partner with a foreign company.

Finally, the company president was also very clear about his main objective. Unlike many Japanese companies that start (and end) with a general "get-to-know-each-other" meeting, this client clearly stated that it wanted to sell its U.S. patent and marketing rights.

A direct approach usually appeals to U.S. executives who want to cut to the chase. If nothing else, a clear proposition helps them determine appropriate next steps. In contrast, general introductory meetings may leave a U.S. counterpart feeling like he wasted his time and is uninterested in further follow-up.

In retrospect, one thing we could have done better is to have been prepared to go "off script" more easily. It's challenging for anybody, especially Japanese executives, to adjust a presentation to the audience in real time. But exciting and unexpected new business can grow out of even an initial meeting when an executive is able to identify and seize new opportunities that present themselves.

It may be unrealistic to expect that one visit will lead to lots of new business, but I think my client is off to a good start. And, at a minimum, he and I will both have good memories of all that lobster!

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