Just about every foreign “shacho” of a small- to medium-size company I’ve ever talked to has complained about how hard it is to find strong bilingual Japanese salespeople. By “strong”, I mean people who are self-motivated and can maintain a high level of performance without a sales “bucho” pushing them every day. One possible reason bilinguals are hard to find is that they have such a wide range of opportunities, many are not willing to put up with the pressures of doing sales.

I happen to believe that strong salespeople are born rather than developed (although obviously people can learn how to sell I do think they need the personality for it). So that means attracting people with sales personalities to your company. You can do this by either developing a powerful incentive program and attracting proven talent from competitors, or by growing your own talent.

] Creating a magnetic work environment is a function of what level of sales person you’re trying to attract. If you are thinking high-end performers, then obviously money is important. Surprisingly, though, here in Tokyo, once people are making more than JPY10M per year I find that salary becomes less important than other working factors. If you’re targeting a top performer in this wage bracket, consider spending more money in making the team environment (i.e., money on HR training and team building) more attractive so that word gets out what a great company yours is to work for. Also, start offering perks such as worthwhile incentive programs, flexible working hours, flexible holidays, quick promotions, overseas incentive-based training, etc.

If you’re too small for such training and incentives, then there is another time-honored way take your team out drinking and socializing together. Japanese management bind themselves to their employees with a sense of shared mission and challenge. This is not a cheap or cynical activity but rather a genuine effort to get people to make sacrifices early on in order to get benefits later. Clearly this kind of approach gives results, however, it requires two things: i) that you are prepared to have a very centralized operation which is going to be somewhatautocratic, and ii) that you are prepared to deliver on the promise of future benefits. The best benefits to offer are those that develop out of a combined success and which are capped ミ i.e., stock and stock options, rather than generous retirement and healthcare packages.

Growing your own talent is tricky. Although you can get people more cheaply at the beginning, you are going to be spending a lot of time and money developing them and then retaining them. If you start with someone too green, you could wind up developing a person who doesn’t realize that what they already have is better than the industry average, and who always sees the grass as being greener on the other side. I personally prefer to take on people who are looking for a career change. They’ve already been working for a while and are realistic in their expectations.

One of my rules of thumb when gambling on an inexperienced person is to measure their energy level and responsiveness. In sales, we need people who are instinctively sensitive to the other person’s needs and yet who can project themselves well enough to be remembered. The number of salespeople who actually have these qualities is quite small (they soon get promoted out of sales), therefore you might want to look for people from other industries. One of my favorite source industries is the travel and hospitality industry-where customer service is a live or die situation.Anyway, the point here is that great salespeople will not just appear in front of you spontaneously. A substantial amount of conscious and targeted effort is needed by the CEO or senior management to make sure that the right elements are put in place. This process may take 2-3 years to gather a high-performance 5-10 person team. Shoganai, that’s what it takes…