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How have fewer face-to-face meetings affected B2B relationships?

How have fewer face-to-face meetings affected B2B relationships?

Face-to-face meetings have always been central to B2B relationships. For many, they are the most natural way to conduct business, giving participants information through both verbal and non-verbal cues – such as body language, tone, and reactions. In-person meetings also have the advantage of commanding the full attention of everyone involved – by contrast, during digital meetings and events, participants can attempt to multitask, perhaps leading to a lack of clarity.

Since the pandemic, the number of face-to-face interactions has declined around the world, which has had a sizeable impact on the B2B buying journey. To get a sense of that impact, we’ve chosen to spotlight a culture which has always placed great value on in-person business relationships – Japan.

 

Business interactions in pre-Covid Japan

In Japan, face-to-face meetings are the backbone of business relationships. It is not unusual for a Japanese businessperson to travel for hours by plane for a single meeting, returning on the same day. This is because, for Japanese businesses, maintaining good social relationships between companies can be as important as the business aspect.

Japan is considered a high context culture – meaning that what goes unsaid is often as important as what is spoken. This is known in Japanese culture as “ba no kuuki wo yomu” (場の空気を読む), or literally “reading the air”.  Communication in high context cultures depends heavily on the non‐verbal aspects of communication. By contrast, low context cultures depend more on explicit, verbally expressed forms of communication. For example, the US is a low context culture that generally relies heavily on information communicated explicitly by words. Asian and Hispanic cultures resemble high context audiences which generally accept communications that are deeper and more complex than spoken or written messages.

 

How has Covid affected Japanese working practices?

In July 2020, the Japanese minister for the economy, and minister in charge of the country’s Coronavirus response, called on companies to ensure that 70% of their workforce was working from home.

This transition wasn’t necessarily easy. Despite their position as a leading global producer of digital tech, Japan ranked just 23rd out of 63 nations in digital competitiveness in 2019, according to the International Institute for Management Development. However, post-Covid, and amid acute labour shortages, the Japanese transition into a digital workplace picked up a significant head of steam.

Though video calls have for the most part replaced face-to-face meetings, some Japanese companies have asked their employees to continue to follow seating arrangements based on their seniority, as they would in-person. In September 2020, Zoom released a feature that allows users to change the order that participants appear onscreen, which has allowed Japanese companies to arrange employees hierarchically during video calls. The most senior employee will sit in the upper-left corner of the screen, with the second most senior in the top right. The more junior the employee, the lower they will appear on-screen in a virtual meeting.

 

Japanese business after COVID

A report by McKinsey showed that B2B decision-makers in Japan considered digital channels 1.5x more important than before the pandemic. This is lower than in some markets – for example, the same study showed that B2B decision-makers in the UK rated them 3x more important – but shows the shift towards digital interactions is likely to endure.

In July 2020, Japanese communications giants Fujitsu announced that they would be halving their office space for the next three years, encouraging their 80,000 employees to work primarily from home. Other large companies, such as Hitachi, are planning to keep their remote working measures in effect for better operational efficiency.

This indicates that, even after the pandemic, there is no guarantee that life in Japan’s corporate establishment will snap back to how it was before. Salarymen (Japanese white-collar workers), who would ordinarily have worked themselves into the ground at their workplaces have, thanks to the emergence of Zoom and the increased digitisation of the workplace, discovered a new, more liberating approach to work. They may no longer be content to return to the world of long commutes and the pressures of the office. This has long-term consequences for B2B interactions in particular.

 

High context versus low context cultures – tips for marketers:

  • Firstly, understand the cultural context of your target markets – are they high or low context cultures? Use a Local In-Market Expert to guide you.
  • Bear in mind that context can vary even within languages – for example, Canadian French is considered higher context than Canadian English, but lower context than French French. Again, a Local In-Market Expert can advise on linguistic nuances.
  • Consider the cultural implications of high context versus low context for your buying journey, the UX you provide, and the number of touchpoints needed at each stage.
  • For example, high context cultures have been shown to respond very well to websites that include a lot of animations, sounds, graphics and other interactive elements. This is thought to be because people in high context cultures appreciate interactivity in general. It makes them feel as though they are being drawn into an experience.
  • In particular, in cultures like Japan where face-to-face contact has historically been important, what digital experiences can you create which can partially replace that in the post-pandemic future?

. . .

Low to high context countries exist on a spectrum and can also evolve over time, in response to external cultural influences, unforeseen events like Covid, and shifting demography. Whatever countries you are targeting, authentic cultural insight allows you to tailor your messages and strategy so it fits the local audience and in turn, delivers more impact. To find out how Oban can help, please get in touch.


Suzie Oakford

Suzie Oakford | Commercial Director

Oban International is the digital marketing agency specialising in international expansion. Our LIME (Local In-Market Expert) Network provides up to date cultural input and insights from over 80 markets around the world, helping clients realise the best marketing opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.