Japanese Company Adopts U.S. Methods

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Caught between a client list that includes many Western companies and an old Japanese paradigm that doesn't recognize teleservices as a sales tool, Telemarketing Japan Inc., the country's fourth largest teleservices provider, is implementing U.S. best practices in a country that thinks the industry is just about answering calls.


"Teleservices here is still mainly inbound order taking and customer service," said Takao Miyazawa, TMJ's executive vice president for corporate planning and administration, in a phone interview from the company's headquarters in Tokyo. "The old paradigm is that teleservices is just taking the call."


The company, whose list of Western clients has grown steadily since it was incorporated as a subsidiary of Benesse Corp. in 1992, is working to build its outbound database marketing teleservices and train its teleservices representatives to recognize cross-selling and upselling opportunities. In addition, it is implementing incentive programs and different types of technology not widely used in Japan.


"Foreign companies that have found success with outbound telemarketing and other techniques in other new markets they've entered will lead the way in bringing these methods to Japan," said Jon Kaplan, president of TeleDevelopment, Richfield, OH, which is working with TMJ on implementing best practices.


TMJ's biggest challenge is training the primarily part-time work force, which is unfamiliar with sales practices and slow to accept incentive programs.


The impression of the Japanese teleservices industry as just answering calls has resulted in a national teleservices work force only casually supervised and not trained to take advantage of its contact with customers to offer selling opportunities, Miyazawa said.


"It is rare that supervisors develop TSRs. Normally they train them for a week, then they let them take the phones, and if they cannot answer a question, it goes to the supervisor," Miyazawa said. "There are very primitive operations that are being used in most of the industry. Highly skilled operations people are nonexistent here"


TMJ is developing its staff by preparing supervisors to evaluate and train employees. Similarly, agent training, which traditionally focused on product knowledge and recognizing the appropriate Japanese words of respect to use in conversations, is expanding to include sales training. TMJ representatives are learning about cross-selling and upselling so they will be better prepared to accommodate clients.


While supervisors are better able to train representatives, the nature of the work force often presents challenges. The cost of full-time employees is nearly double that of part-time help. Because of the cost and the fact that most Japanese are unfamiliar with the teleservices industry, the industry's agent work force is made up primarily of housewives and students who work four-hour shifts two to four times a week.


"It is harder for supervisors to develop TSRs because the supervisors work full time, but if the TSRs work four hours one, two, three times a week, its hard for the supervisors to see them," Miyazawa said.


Similarly, though supervisors have been instructed on the benefits of incentive programs, they often find them difficult to implement.


"The old paradigm or sense of value is that people should be treated equally," he said, noting that awarding incentives sometimes gives the impression that people are being treated unequally or unfairly.


The company has found success with incentive programs when administered properly, said Miyazawa, noting that programs that reward a team, rather than an individual, have worked best.


Meanwhile, the entire outbound side of the business is in its early development stages, Miyazawa said. Companies doing outbound telemarketing often use unreliable lists or dial randomly, and frequently offer high-risk financial products, causing a negative impression of the medium.


"We think the trend is toward that direction of database marketing and using call centers as a tool for database marketing," said Miyazawa, noting that the company is doing some outbound work and improving its infrastructure to support that side of the business.


The company is also experimenting with new technologies and better using technologies to track metrics.


"Many companies don't use numbers. They have abandoned call rates and that's all," Miyazawa said, noting that even companies that use Lucent's Definity switching device often do not use its reporting function, he said.


While much of the same technology available in the United States is also available in Japan, the company sometimes faces challenges adapting certain technologies, such as work force management software, that was not created based on a work force made up of part-timers.


And while the Japanese teleservices industry may still be catching up with that of other countries, the customer base is no less demanding.


"The expectations are high here. It is quite similar, maybe higher, than in the United States," Miyazawa said. "Customers, they value the accuracy of the information and the speed of service."
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