Mazda men go knocking in Japan

Gannett News Service
Rochelle Sharpe

Hiroshima, Japan – Those smiling salesmen who knock on doors in midafternoon aren’t from Fuller Brush.

They’re Mazda men, trying to dazzle customers with their personalities as they talk transmissions and tires. They sell cars in Japan like Avon ladies sell soap – with brochures, samples and sweet talk.

But the men from Mazda, with more at stake than 12 ounces of hand lotion, are an enterprising lot. They will do nearly anything to make themselves more appealing and prove their devotion to their clients.

Nobuo Takahashi, chief of the sales department in one dealership, still pretends he is single even though he’s been married for years. “When you tell people you’re a bachelor, they pay more attention to you,” he said.

Bunzo Suruki, a salesman turned public relations man, once used his Mahjong skills to sell cars. He was always in search of a partner and met a carpenter who was just learning to play the game. Suruki visited frequently, playing a few games before talking business. Finally, he clinched a sale at 2 a.m. after a long evening of the game.

“I became such a good friend of one family, they could not say no to me,” Suruki said. The family faced a terrible dilemma, though, because they owned a Toyota and the Toyota salesman also had treated them well. “They introduced me to their eldest daughter and almost forced her to buy my car,” he said. “Then, they bought a Toyota for themselves.”

“It’s a very time-consuming process,” Suzuki said. “You must make personal visits every month” – even after the sale. An average salesman sells only five or six cars a month, and it takes at least 10 visits to sell a car to a stranger.

When Suzuki started out, he visited 100 houses a day – an inefficient way to do business, he acknowledged, but an expected practice in Japan, where more than 90% of the Mazdas and a large percentage of other makes are sold door-to-door.

“A salesman is not in the position to ask clients to come to a showroom,” Takahashi said. Their low status dates from the 17th century, when there was a caste system that put merchants at the bottom. Despite the prejudice, car salesmen make as much as other auto company workers, averaging about $18,700 a year.

Suzuki found the idea of selling so repulsive when he joined Mazda – where all employees rotate through the sales division after they are hired – that he couldn’t make a sale for two months “I felt I was somehow disgracing myself to bend down and say ‘please buy.’ Even if I had visited someone five times and I knew he wanted to buy the car, I could not bring myself to say it.”

Later, he overcame his distaste and started perfecting his sales techniques. He learned how to “prospect,” that is, determine when someone really wanted to buy a car in if they could afford it.

“You can’t take things for granted. If the customer says, ‘We can’t buy another car for two years,’ that’s the last thing you believe.” More important, the salesmen say, is knowing when a family automobile needs to be re-inspected – a costly, rigorous process that can make a new car especially appealing.

“If I meet someone who needs a maintenance certificate in one month, I visit him once a week,” Takahashi said.

For those with cars in good condition, he tries to become an automotive errand boy, offering to take family cars in for routine servicing. For those who prefer to do the service work themselves, he volunteers to research any questions on their cars, looking up facts on anything from auto insurance to expected model changes. “I always try to make an opportunity to come back a second time,” he said.

He even has an offer for people who don’t know how to drive – an invitation to try the Mazda driving school, sometimes followed by a pitch explaining the advantages of car ownership.

Takahashi tries never to push too hard too fast. “The most important thing in the beginning of the sales activity is to make a good impression,” he said. He strives for the conservative good citizen image, never wearing flashy clothes and acting as self-confident as possible.

“I sell myself rather than the car,” he said. “Any manufacturer can provide an equivalent quality car to a client. I tell them as long as I’m working for the dealership, I’ll take all responsibility for the car. I present myself as someone they can trust.”

After his first few visits to chat up the product, Takahashi shifts his focus, concentrating on building a friendship with his clients. He may give them a small gift or simply stop by to say hello, making sure he meets a person who buys the cars for the family. That usually means making appointments with wives to see their husbands – something which often stretches his workdays to 10 or 12 hours.

“You have to visit homes at night and on weekends. Sometimes you visit husbands in their offices or during lunch hours,” Suzuki said.

Like a doctor with a loyal following, Takahashi does not have to search for business much these days. Instead, he helps his current customers with their car troubles and expands his clientele through customer referrals.

Having sold 800 cars in the last eight years, Takahashi can conduct much of his business by phone. But when people finally show interest in buying a car, he still takes special care not to offend them, having learned that the smallest refusal can kill a deal.
Once Takahashi angered a company president who wanted to see the colors of two cars he ordered. He told him cars of those colors could be seen in the branch of the showroom – a place where few customers go, since they are content to order their automobiles by catalog.

“I should have accompanied him to the branch, but I told him to go by himself; I had a previous engagement, so I couldn’t help it.”

The president was so upset, he threw the salesman out of his office and told him never to return. Takahashi, horrified at what he had done to an important Mazda customer, visited the company for 10 days straight, leaving his apology with a secretary when the president refused to see him.

On the 10th day, the president reordered his cars to the surprise of Takahashi, who said he had continued to apologize not because he lost a sale, but to show his true regret.