Today’s Wall Street Journal describes how Lexus is trying to improve its market share in Japan. Somewhat unusually, Toyota launched the Lexus brand outside of Japan and only two years ago began to market the cars inside the country. It’s been tough sledding against predominantly European competition. So what is Lexus trying in an attempt to differentiate itself?
The screen-door technique is part of an unusual tactic under way in Japan’s luxury-car wars. No. 1 car maker Toyota, behind in the luxury market, wants to fight back by plunging deep into the world of ancient Japanese hospitality traditions. "Japan has a long and isolated history with lots of unique customs. We figured we could bring that to the Lexus brand," says Takeshi Yoshida, a managing officer at Lexus.
So off to school everyone went.
In early 2003, Toyota approached several etiquette schools that specialize in teaching the art of beautifying daily behavior, including the correct way to bow, hold chopsticks and sit on a tatami mat floor. The company asked the schools to tweak their techniques so that they applied to selling cars. Most snubbed Toyota’s request. But the Ogasawara Ryu Reihou institute, in Tokyo, agreed to work with the car maker. All Lexus employees, from repairmen to showroom managers, learn these and other rules during a three-day training course at the Fuji Lexus College, a fortresslike facility perched on the side of snow-covered Mount Fuji.
And that has led to some interesting practices in the Lexus showroom.
At Lexus showrooms, sales consultants lean five to 10 degrees forward and assume a warrior’s "waiting position" when a customer is looking at a car. When serving customers coffee or tea, employees must kneel on the floor with both feet together and both knees on the ground. The coffee cup must never make a noise when it is placed on the table.
The etiquette experts determined that a salesperson should stand about two arms’ lengths from customers when they are looking at a car and come in closer when closing a deal. They decided that a salesperson should bow more deeply to a customer who has purchased a car than a casual window shopper. When standing idly Lexus employees must place their left hand over their right with fingers together and thumbs interlocked, a posture originally designed for samurais to show that they were not about to draw their swords.
Yes I’m sure that creates an interesting air of formality that works well with Japanese culture, but can you imagine walking into a Lexus showroom in Texas and being served tea by a kneeling sales samurai wannabe? Me neither.
But on the other hand that kind of customer interaction would have been refreshing twenty plus years ago when I bought my first car out of college. The salesman took the keys to my current beater to determine trade-in value, and the refused to give the keys back unless I negotiated. Needless to say I didn’t, I never went back to that dealer, and I told everyone I knew about the experience.
A spot of tea might have changed things.