How to Master the Japanese Client Dinner
By Mark Kennedy
You’ve worked hard to develop a relationship with a key prospect to the point where now you would like to take them out to dinner. That’s a great idea, because by interacting with this client outside of their normal setting it may be possible to really get to know each other and more precisely uncover their true needs.
Especially in Japan, interaction with customers on a professional level in a relaxed setting such as a traditional Japanese restaurant will help to solidify your relationship. To make a good impression and get the most out of this opportunity, you must plan the event with the precision of a Special Forces operation: Have a clear objective, develop a plan of action in advance and implement flawlessly.
Pick a suitable location
Naturally, there are many options from which to choose, Western, Japanese, etc. If you’re serious about taking this relationship to the next level, it would be wise to select a restaurant that will impress your client without over doing it. When in Japan you can, generally, take the guesswork out of the equation by selecting a high end Japanese restaurant that specializes in multi-course traditional cuisine called 懐石料理かいせきりょうり・kaiseki ryori.
A key tip is to pick somewhere with a private room. Also, you’ll want to ensure that your private room has a 掘りごたつほりごたつ・hori gotatsu, a cut-out in the floor which will allow you to sit on the floor but still be able to stretch your legs. (Otherwise you and your guest will probably be fairly uncomfortable by about the third course.) Including drinks a reasonable budget will be in the range of 8,000 to 10,000 JPY/person.
Determine the number of participants.
It is recommended to balance the number of clients with an equal number from your party, and they should be of equivalent status. This is relevant for seating. Let’s assume that you will be joined by one direct report or some other, more junior associate, and you will be taking two people out to dinner. The main customer contact is, more or less, of similar status to you, and this client will bring along his/or own junior associate. Thus you’ll be a party of four.
Arrive early to check that everything is in place and to ensure that your customers do not arrive before you, a major faux pas in Japan. By early, I mean at least 30 minutes early, as it is not unusual for Japanese customers to arrive 15 or more minutes before the designated start time. Have your junior associate wait outside the restaurant to greet your clients upon arrival and escort them to your private room. If necessary, make additional introductions and exchange business cards before sitting down.
Your guests will then look to you to direct them to a particular seat. Typically the most senior client should be seated facing toward and farthest from the door, a spot which is usually adjacent to the 床の間とこのま・toko no ma where there may be a flower arrangement. The more junior guest should be seated next to their superior facing toward the entrance to the private dining room.
As the senior ranking host, you will sit directly opposite from your main customer, and your junior associate will sit immediately next to the door. I was taught that this seating logic is based upon the fact that your main guest would be the last to be attacked in the unlikely event that a samurai sword-wielding intruder were to invade your private room. Your junior associate will be the first to be cut down. (Rank has its privileges!) Naturally, if you’re in a room with a view, however, then all of this seating logic may need to be compromised to ensure that your guests get to sit in the best spot.
Order the first round of drinks
To kick things off, first you’ll need to order drinks. The most common choice for the first round tends to be beer, although some may prefer a liqueur such as a plum wine called 梅酒うめしゅ・umeshu, whereas others may want a non-alcoholic drink such as oolong teaウーロン茶・うーろんちゃ. As more and more Japanese seem to be concerned about the potential for beer to cause weight gain, some may ask for a short glass. Once everyone has been served, you can now officially get the evening underway with a hearty first toast with a hearty kampai!乾杯・かんぱい Say it like you mean it!
Your junior partner has many important roles to play this evening, but one of the most important is ensuring that your guests’ never run out of something to drink. While you should be doing this, too, your subordinate will also be responsible for ordering more to drink and mixing drinks of 焼酎しょうちゅう・shochu and hot water, for example, at the table.
At many restaurants your table will be equipped with what I like to call the “magic button.” When you press it, your waiter or waitress will magically appear ready to take your order. Put your junior associate in charge of the “magic button” and keep an eye on whether your guests have enough to drink at all times.Photo by Yukiko * Snowy
After breaking the ice, it is, generally, best for you to lead the conversation by addressing your equivalent directly rather than making chit-chat with their subordinate. Don’t immediately jump to a discussion about business-related matters; Start with the small stuff that may be of mutual interest. There will be plenty of time “to get down to business” later. Sports or even the weather will certainly get the job done, although it is perfectly fine to delve into plenty of other topics. Especially as a non-Japanese, the study of English, for example, is a reliable old-standby.
Avoid potentially polarizing topics such as politics and religion. The point is to use as many open ended questions as possible to get your clients talking. One thing will lead to another, and everyone will become more comfortable, especially if your junior associate does their job well to ensure that no one’s glass runs dry. You’ll know when the time is right to steer the conversation toward business, confirm your customer’s needs and make your pitch. Don’t wait too long, however, as sometimes your customers might end up having one drink too many.
A steady stream of courses will have been served by now. Each is relatively small and usually presented on exquisite pottery. You can keep track of how many more courses will be coming by reading the menu from right to left, top to bottom. High end restaurants usually go out of their way to concoct indecipherable descriptions, and, therefore, the wait staff will usually explain each dish. You’ll know that the meal is coming to a close when either rice or noodles are served. The meal will finish with a small dessert or piece of fruit.
Do not pay the bill at the table.
Feign the need to be excused and after closing the door to your private room discreetly ask your server to bring the bill. You may care to use this opportunity to make a quick stop in the rest room. It is important to note that you must be careful about compliance issues, especially when entertaining customers that work for a public or quasi-public entity. Taking them out to dinner may, in fact, be illegal. At the very least it may be necessary to share the expenses which can be very awkward. When planning to entertain such a client, it is imperative to check their own guidelines in advance and, of course, adhere to your own company’s compliance rules.
After returning to the table it is polite to ask your guests whether they would like to have a taxi or daiko代行・だいこう service ordered. Daiko, which is more common in the countryside where there is less public transportation is a fascinating, useful service to prevent drunk driving. Two people come to the restaurant in a separate vehicle, one drives you home in your own car and the other follows. After you reach home they both depart together in their own car.
Before you go, though, it is best to present your gifts with a parting gift called an お土産おみやげ・omiyage. Some restaurants sell such gifts featuring a specialty of the house. Any gift must be meticulously wrapped in advance, and don’t be surprised if your guests do not open it at the table.
But wait! Your customers might just be warming up and want to go to a second party or 二次会にじかい・nijikai. There are numerous options including karaoke, bars or clubs. Let your junior associate take care of the details. Sometimes your guests will insist on paying for the second party. While you should attempt at first to say “No, let us take care of it,” in the end it is often best to let your guests reciprocate. You can always ask to keep the party going by taking your customers to a 三次会みじかい・mijikai, etc.
The evening has finally come to a close, but you’re not completely finished. A brief thank you note sent promptly the next morning is always an appreciated gesture. You can, in addition, use this correspondence to suggest the logistics for your next interaction with your customer. Be sure to get plenty of rest before doing this all over again! Good luck!