First Lesson of Management-Putting Customers First

Shotaro Kamiya was to Toyota Motor Sales what Ohno was to the Toyota Production System. His leadership defined the sales philosophy of Toyota. Like most Toyota leaders, Kamiya could be described as a self-made man. Unlike most Toyota employees today, who are hired directly out of school, he joined Toyota as sales manager in 1935, when Toyota Motor Company was first being formed. Toyota needed to hire experienced people and Kamiya had worked at Mitsui Trading Company (a close partner to Toyota) and had a lot of international experience in the U.S. and Europe. Kamiya ended up creating the Toyota dealer network in Japan and was also responsible for expansion of Toyota into sales in the U.S. Eventually he became the honorary chairman of Toyota. One famous quote from Kamiya reflects the “customer first” philosophy he preached and ingrained in others throughout his career:

The priority in receiving benefits from automobile sales should be in the order of the customer, then the dealer, and lastly, the manufacturer. This attitude is the best approach in winning the trust of customers and dealers and ultimately brings growth to the manufacturer.

Unlike the use of auto showrooms in the United States to boost sales, Japan’s tradition is door-to-door sales. In Japan, auto companies have extensive data on customers and know when to come knocking at the door. For example, when Mika is about to become of age to drive, there will be a salesperson contacting her to outfit her with just the right Toyota for her needs. The personal attention creates a bond between customers and the company. If customers need auto repairs, they are likely to call the salesperson for help rather than deal with an impersonal maintenance department. This supports the goal of Toyota to have customers for life … and for the lives of their descendants.

Toyota used this practice of door-to-door sales, and later its dealerships, as a way to teach new employees how to see and understand things from the customer’s perspective. I asked Toshiaki “Tag” Taguchi, president and CEO of Toyota Motor, North America, if he could remember any special experience in his life when he really learned what the Toyota Way was all about. He recalled an early experience selling Toyota cars:

The first assignment I got as a freshman trainee …, I had to go through various operating departments of Toyota Motor Sales Company and three of us were sent to the dealerships to see if factory people would benefit by spending a few months at dealerships. So I spent about five months at the dealership in Nagoya, where I visited house to house carrying brochures, and sold a total of nine new and used cars during that time. But the point was learning about our customers. I think Toyota is trying to give freshmen an opportunity to learn about themselves. Even today, freshmen have a baptism to go to the dealership for a month or two to learn.”

Going to the source to see and understand (genchi genbutsu) extends to understanding what customers want. It is not sufficient for leaders to pore over marketing data or listen to marketing presentations and get an abstract sense of the customer. Selling door to door is one way to get inside the heads of customers and develop a visceral sense of what purchasing a Toyota means to customers.