Understanding the difference between the end user, customer, and decision maker is key to mastering sales

When I first visited Japan, I was young and if not quite penniless, I didn’t have many extra nickels to spare. At the time, Japan was the most expensive country in the world, and everything from food to trains to lodging strained my limited budget. But I couldn’t miss the seeing the largest bronze statue of the Buddha in the world (1), so I made my way to Nara.

After admiring the Really Big Effing Buddha, it was near lunchtime and I was growing hungry. But $25 for a convenience store bento or $40 for a real meal had me on the lookout for cheaper alternatives (2). And there I saw it, stands all around the park selling packs of cookies for the bargain price of $3. From the number of families queued up in front of the many stands, I figured they had to be good (3).

The signs were all in Japanese which I couldn’t read. But I could see the cookies were round and flat, like other Japanese rice crackers (4), with ten in a pack wrapped in a green strip of paper with a cute cartoon of a deer.

I noticed the deer ambling around the park, which seemed to be something of a tourist attraction itself, so it was not surprising the local treat for tourists were a kind of animal cracker, not unlike the maple leaf cookies in Hiroshima (5) and the cinnamon cookies in the shape of the humped bridges of Kyoto (6).

Deer Crackers. Yum!

I paid my money and I gets my crackers. And I take my first bite. My initial reaction was: bland. Not just regular bland but really, really bland. In fact, they tasted a lot like cardboard.

But to be honest, at that time all Japanese cakes, candies, and cookies tasted kind of bland to me. Japanese “sweets” are very high quality, with delicate, exquisite flavors. If all you’ve had are the sugar bombs of Snickers Bars and Oreo Cookie cheesecake topped with chocolate syrup, subtle flavors take some getting used to. I figured these cookies were just more subtle than the others.

So I ate another cookie. My second reaction was: bleh. No wonder they were only $3. But I wondered why kids were so excited about them.

Looking around, I realized the kids didn’t actually like them either. I caught one dropping his on the ground where a deer meandered over to eat it, and another fed a cookie directly to a deer. It reminded me of our cocker spaniel, Trixie, who would hoover up the vegetables I “accidentally” dropped on the floor when I was young (7).

I was tempted to toss my cookies, too, but then I’d have to buy lunch, so I gnawed another one. As I was crunching away, a deer came over and tried to grab the pack from my hand.

“That’s mine!” I yelled as I jerked the pack away from the thieving deer. That caught the attention of a whole pack of deer that moseyed over like a gang of angry Yakuza.

Soon I was surrounded by deer, half of them grabbing at my cookies or poking at my chest with their snouts. The other half pleaded with me with sad, Bambi eyes. But I refused to give in. If they wanted their own cookies, they could pay $3 like the rest of us.

Just to show the annoying deer who was in charge here, I ate another cracker, and another. That’s when I noticed all the kids pointing, while the parents were laughing at me, too.

By now, the Japanese who hear this story are rolling on the ground saying “baka na gaijin!” (8). I finally realized what should have been obvious — the crackers were deer food, sold to parents to give to their kids to feed the deer. Wow, did I feel stupid.

You must be wondering what this story has to do with startups. But every time I think of how to reach new customers, I’m reminded of this experience. The people (or deer) you think are your customers are frequently not the people you have to sell to.

Though the deer are the consumers — the end users — deer have no money. Neither do young kids. But parents do. So who’s the customer? All three.

To succeed, the deer have to love the crackers, kids have to want to feed the deer enough to bug their parents, and parents have to be willing to pay.

The cracker has to not only fit the taste profile of deer (that apparently are attracted to even more subtle flavors than Japanese), but needs to be covered with a cute cartoon wrapper for the kids, and priced cheap enough that parents don’t mind giving them away to animals. Pleasing one customer is tough enough — getting three to sign-up is x³ tougher.

And yet, that’s exactly what we have to do selling most products, in my case, enterprise software.

The front-line users who have the problem and understand our solution usually have no budget, nor the authority to change established processes or install new software on the servers. They’re the deer.

We usually have to sell to another group, IT for example, or HR, or engineering management, who have to be convinced that helping the end user benefits them, too. They have to be convinced that adding our software is not only worthwhile, but a higher priority than all the other things they need to do. These are the kids, who in effect, are the real customer.

Lastly, if upper management isn’t on-board from the beginning, we end up spending months on a small pilot that proves the product solves their problem, but a purchase order never gets issued. These are the parents who have to pay for the product, and ultimately decide if the deer get their crackers and the kids gets their fun, or the family goes straight home.

If you have a good product that solves a real problem, getting the deer excited is the easy part. But before embarking on any new project that will take time or resources, the Japanese deer taught me to make sure the kids are excited, and their parents willing to pay.

(1) Daibutsu at Todaiji Temple, a UNESCO world heritage site. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C5%8Ddai-ji

(2) A few decades of deflation and exchange rate adjustment have made Japan very reasonably priced now. I highly recommend a visit. And be sure to make a trip to Nara to see the really big effing Buddha.

(3) Everything in Japan is good. There is no bad food anywhere in the entire country. Except natto (smelly, sticky fermented soybeans). As long as you avoid natto, you’ll have a great trip.

(4) Senbei (煎餅).

(5) Momiji manju (もみじ饅頭).  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Momiji_manj%C5%AB

(6) Yatsuhashi cookies (八ツ橋) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yatsuhashi). A cinnamon cookie made of rice flour. The name literally means “eight bridges.” And their humped shape resembles the traditional Japanese wooden bridges common in the temples, shrines, and palaces of Kyoto. But it turns out the name has nothing to do with bridges — Yatsuhashi was the name of the baker in Kyoto who created the cookies.

(7) Except broccoli and peas. Before getting a dog, make sure it’ll eat broccoli. Otherwise, you’ll need to get a pet Dyson, too.

(8) Stupid foreigner. Interesting note: the Japanese word for stupid — baka (馬鹿) — literally means “horse-deer” (9).

(9) Actually, the local people would have said “Aho na gaijin” (阿呆な外人) in the Kansai vernacular (10). Only tourists from outside the region would have said “baka.”

(10) A shameless plug for my Tuttle guidebook to the Kansai vernacular: Colloquial Kansai Japanese. https://www.amazon.com/Colloquial-Kansai-Japanese-Dialects-Phrasebook/dp/0804837236