Billion Dollar Consulting And My Bullet Train Ride in Japan

One breezy autumn day about 15 years ago, in Osaka, Japan I was racing through a train station trying catch the bullet train to Tokyo.

I had a half-eaten burger in one hand, a cup of ice water in the other, and a briefcase wedged under my arm.

And I was about to throw myself into a lion’s den of angry, roaring clients. And I didn’t know if I would make it out with my tender young consulting career still intact or in bloody tatters.

Flashback to earlier that day.

I got a panicked call from our advertising partner on the angry client’s account.

-Hello, Michael?

-Yes

-Omron is livid.

-What’s wrong?

-Seems they saw the exact same image we used on their ad…in somebody else’s ad.

-(Gulp)

-Yeah, can you come in RIGHT NOW, so we can figure out what we’re going to do?

I hightailed it over to their offices and we spent the next couple of hours debating how to do damage control.

The Billion Dollar Client

The client was a billion-dollar manufacturing company.

Finally, the president of our ad partner firm said, “Michael, I think you should go and meet with the client face-to-face. Today.”

A fine mist appeared on my forehead and I swallowed hard.

I could have said…

But I’m only 21 years old
Or
But I don’t speak Japanese well enough yet
Or
I’ve only been in this country a few months
Or
I don’t understand Japanese business etiquette well enough yet
Or
I have no experience dealing with ticked-off clients
Or
I’m scared out of my wits.

All of that was true.

But I didn’t say any of that.

I nodded, got to my feet, headed to snag a fast, frugal lunch at McDonald’s and then sprinted toward the station.

I made the train. And as I munched my burger, I wondered if I’d still be a consultant when I got back to Osaka that night.

This was in Japan, 15 years ago.

I had only been a consultant for a few years at that point. This was by far the largest client we’d ever landed. And I’d only been in Japan a few months.

Yes, I spoke Japanese. But I did not speak it well enough to sing the difficult and delicate song of a Japanese business apology.

As I rushed headlong into the lion’s den, I wondered if I’d have to buy a plane ticket back home later that night.

After a couple hours, the train pulled into Tokyo. I grabbed a taxi to the client’s gleaming, skyscraper offices. Tokyo is one of the busiest cities in the world. And all the swirling masses of people shuffling hurriedly on the streets only added to my agitation, anxiety, and sweat.

I Arrived…

consulting building
I checked in with the receptionist and then sat on my hands in the lobby.

Just breathe.

I rehearsed in my head what our partners had told me to say and (more importantly), how to say it.

After a few minutes that felt like all of September, the receptionist led me into the conference room.

For several seconds the enormity of vulnerability crashed like waves over my shoulders.

– I was 21. Everyone else in the room was 40 or older
– I was Canadian who spoke some Japanese. Everyone else was native and fluent.
– I was on their turf, they were right at home
– I was “in the wrong” they were in the right
– I was the consultant, they were the powerful, billion-dollar client.
– They had all the power. They could break my consulting career before it truly began.

And for an instant, my knees buckled, and the room spun just a bit in my field of vision.

But before I sunk to the floor, a calming wave hit me out of the blue.

Something whispered to me, “The hardest part is over.”

And with that I was able to pull myself together.

I bowed as low as I could so that everyone in the room could see.

And then we started the meeting.

And in that meeting, I learned one of the simplest yet most profound consulting lessons I’ve ever learned.

It’s Not What You May Think

It had nothing to do with negotiation tactics. It had nothing to do with persuasion strategies. It had nothing to do with managing billion-dollar clients.

It had to do with people. And it had to do with something most consultants seem to be losing touch with.

consulting fire

You see, after a short meeting, I was able to save that account.

I was able to reach into the furnace and save our relationship without losing my hand and most of my arm to the flames.

How?

Maybe you’re expecting me to reveal some crypto-consulting tactic I played on the client.

Maybe you’re expecting me to tell you some ninja negotiating strategy I pulled out of my sleeve.

Maybe you’re expecting me to divulge some well-guarded “positioning” secret for managing enormously powerful clients.

But it was simpler and more profound than any of that.

After I had met with the client and explained what happened, they not only understood how the mistake happened, they also understood how much we cared about their account.

If I was willing to race across the country to make things right, they assumed, then I could be trusted with nearly any other aspect of their account.

And our ad agency partner felt the same way.

When they saw that I, a young, disoriented, scared, inexperienced consultant had the courage to place his head in the jaws of a client’s mouth, then they knew they could trust me with any of their accounts.

Multiple Six-Figure Consulting Client

In fact, since that day, we did multiple six figures with that ad agency over the years.

Now, I’m not saying that you need to run out and meet face to face with every client. That would be a foolish waste of your time. One of the greatest things about the internet age is that you can accomplish so much for a client WITHOUT having to meet with them face to face.

But with that convenience comes a grave danger.

And that danger looks like this…

I’m afraid of what the client might say, so I’ll avoid the client with technology.

I’m younger and more inexperienced than the client, so I’ll hide behind technology.

I don’t speak my client’s language or industry lingo, so I’ll speak the language of my consulting technology.

I could have done something similar in my Osaka experience.

I could have called them on the phone. I could have FedExed them. I could have pawned the problem off on my ad partners.

But I knew that hiding behind technology wouldn’t solve a problem of trust.

That can only be solved by relationship.

And relationships are developed face-to-face.

consulting handshake

Because of my experience of the “bullet train baptism,” I’ve become an evangelist for building “relationship processes” into every consulting engagement.

If you fail to build these processes into your consulting engagement, you run the risk of relying on technology when only relationships will do.

How do you do that?

Well, you can find out more about how to build these essential (and revenue-boosting) processes into your engagements by clicking here.

I’m not saying it will net you multiple six-figures in consulting revenues.

But it did for us.

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