The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

What we say and how we say it matters. It matters in life, in families, and in business—especially in sales. Sales talk is very semantics-driven. The classic Hollywood big-talking salesperson is an archeological artifact, a dusty relic, now banished to the tombs. Today, salespeople have to be articulate but not glib, concise not flowery, evidence-based not barrow-boy spivs.

Japan presents a challenge when it comes to developing salespeople. Invariably, they are the undereducated graduates of OJT: on-the-job training. This works for certain technical themes, but not for the broader art of sales. Attempts by foreign executives to rectify this problem are often laughable. Bosses who don’t speak Japanese or don’t have a sales background—or even worse lack both—send in the English-speaking instructors from the corporate Asia–Pacific hub to dole out the sales medicine. It is always snake oil.

Sales training must be based on the reality of selling to clients in their native language. If the clients are Japanese, then the training has to be done in Japanese. Because what we say and how we say it are so culturally and linguistically specific, there is no way you can satisfactorily teach this in English.

This doesn’t stop people from trying, though. The misstep is when they add to their woes by using the HR people from Singapore or Hong Kong, the usual hubs in Asia, who invariably are smart, sharp, rapid-fire Chinese speakers with accented English. They present from the global corporate sales textbook, but sadly they are often hard to understand.

Even worse, the instructors have no understanding of the subtleties of the Japanese language, so there is no opportunity to coach through roleplaying in Japanese.

Let’s stop wasting time and money and get this done properly in the language of the client. There are already enough ways to fail. The first big one is a lack of preparation and failure to anticipate the issues facing the client. Because of this, the language being used is vague and often meandering. Salespeople should complete a mini-SWOT (strength, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis of the industry and the company. This will help flag potential problems that require solutions and direct the discussion to the elements of the greatest interest to the buyer. Of course, we need to be asking good questions in order to find out what the buyer needs. Using SWOT allows us to get to the key points faster and builds more credibility.

Blocker words are another killer of sales success. This is directly related to a lack of discipline on the part of the salesperson. They shoot off their mouths without engaging their brains, and out pour words that spoil the deal. What are these blocker words? Some common ones include: “sort of,” “a few,” “kind of,” “sometimes,” “more or less,” “about,” and “some.” All are vagaries to which no useful sales evidence can be attached. We should speak with authority and certainty because clients want our full belief and commitment. This allows them to trust what we say.

Words such as “price,” “cost,” and “contract” are also poor choices. These words create an image of money rushing out like a flood, with no value coming back in. We should be speaking of “value” and “investment.” Your parents told you to be careful about signing a “contract,” so let’s sign an “agreement” instead. Semantics makes a big difference in what the client hears.

Salespeople also talk too much. They love people and they love to chat. Too many words begin to pop into the conversation, adding no value to the sales process. Being concise is key. Pare down the dialogue to only words that are relevant, add value, are laden with evidence, and build trust; everything else has to go.

Getting people to hand over their hard-earned cash is difficult enough. Poor communication skills make it even tougher. We need to train people properly and monitor their sales conversations to ensure they are achieving the maximum success possible.

It is quite interesting that our clients come from just about every industry you can imagine, but we notice there are some common requests for improving team performance.

The four most popular areas are leadership, communications, sales, and presentations. Although we started in New York in 1912, in Japan we deliver 90% of our training in Japanese. Also, having launched here in Tokyo 53 years ago, we have been able to master how to bring global best practices, together with the required degree of localization, to Japan. You’re the boss. Are you fully satisfied with your current results? If not, and you would like to see higher skill and performance levels in your organization (through training delivered in Japanese or English), drop us a brief note at

We should speak with authority and certainty because clients want our full belief and commitment. This allows them to trust what we say.