I have been to Japan twice, totalling over four weeks in time spent there. I spent my time in big cities like Tokyo and Yokohama as well as smaller ones like Kyoto, Shizuoka and Kamakura. Although I had been working with Japanese people in Toronto for 8 years before I went over to their homeland, nothing can prepare you for actually being immersed in the day to day culture. There are many things I could write about regarding Japan's style of view on business, such as negotiations, loyal relationships or continuous improvement or 'kaizen', but today I want to focus on the politeness that is ubiquitous there and that leads the Japanese to being world famous in their customer service. Entrepreneurs and managers everywhere should be keen to learn how they can adapt these small but powerful concepts to improve their own customer service experience.
Some of us may consider ourselves very polite, and/or very courteous in our jobs. I myself used to work in customer service so I understand how to be polite, even when handling disputes. Canada prides itself on being internationally recognized as a very polite place to live and work, and of course that is true, compared to some other countries. We have a lot of good qualities but we lack some as well. We are not on the top of the list. The main reason is because we consider ourselves as a person first, and a company representative second. In Japan, the collective group is the priority, not the individual. If you work for a company then you are the company, and the customer is to be treated like a god. Customer service staff do not put their feelings ahead of the company or client experience, even if they are having a bad day. This is a major difference to most Western cultures.
Politeness seems to be mandatory in Japan. Even if we do not enter a shop there, the clerks are still greeting the people walking by. If you do enter the shop or restaurant etc. then of course they will welcome you again. And usually it is not just one person but several. When you are paying for your food or product they are very polite in how they handle your money or credit card. The staff are very careful and gentle, showing you that they respect your money. It goes without saying that all of this is happening with a smile on the clerk's face and with a soft tone of voice. Finally, when you leave they thank you for your business. It's quite a ritual and I'm sure it could be tedious for the people working in the service industry there, but try to think of how you the customer feels. The whole experience of let's say buying a toothbrush or sandwich at a corner store is elevated to the level (at least in feeling) of being a VIP dropping lots of cash in a casino or checking in to a high-end hotel.
Here is an example story. My first time there my wife and I took a bus from the airport to our hotel. The bus is like a shuttle, and drops people off at different hotels along the way. When we got to our hotel and were just about to disembark, a very serious staff member came over to us and apologized to me for apparently accidentally taking my suitcase off at the previous hotel stop. It was not lost - the mistake was discovered early and my suitcase was being delivered as we spoke. Yet she apologized many times. I said it was no problem of course. As my wife and I waited in line to check in to our hotel, the suitcase arrived. That was maybe 10 minutes after being informed of the mishap. Very fast and efficient indeed. Further, when we got to the hotel front desk, the representative from the bus line told them of the 'incident' and suddenly we were upgraded for free. The company I imagine did not spend their time looking at which individual should be blamed nor which individual should recover the suitcase. The company, acting as a collective team, solved the problem in the most efficient, customer-friendly way possible.
No matter which mode of travel you often take; bus, train, airplane, could you imagine the same level of customer service if your bag was accidentally taken off the vehicle a stop or two early? I can't.
For a more humorous example, one of the strangest things I saw there was when we went through a toll booth, and both the driver and worker exchanged ‘good mornings’ and ‘thank yous’, in addition to an electronic image of a worker bowing to the driver! Think of your last experience at a toll booth. Did you exchange greetings and thank yous? Maybe you did, but would you say that the experience is consistent with all the toll booth stops of that region? Probably it would depend on the individual who was at the booth. In Japan, it does not depend on the individual. There is a policy in place which is followed without exception. To complement this, there is a social norm in place to be polite, and so that is why the driver also acted respectfully and courteously at the toll booth. Interesting concept.
I cannot say for sure how much of this society’s politeness is forced, conditioned, or genuine, but it is definitely expected, and to not act politely is a terrible social offense.
I personally really like the calmness of the people and the politeness of the service industry. It certainly is better than a lot of customer service in the world, and there are a few staff workers in the past that I have dealt with that could use this kind of training. Therefore upon returning I immediately added some of these techniques and concepts into my customer service training programs that I run here. It just seemed like good business sense.
The politeness is standard there too, so you can expect it and count on it. In other countries, we seem to be thrilled to get excellent customer service or to get a happy, efficient staff worker. In Japan, it happens 99% of the time. I found myself smiling all the time after purchasing something. A smile is contagious and we should strive to have our customers leave our premises with a smile on their face too.
Every entrepreneur or manager reading this should ask themselves what they can do better to enhance their customer's experience. I hope this article has inspired readers to do more research on the subject and if possible have a chat with Japanese people in your circle to ask them further questions on their customer service ideas. One caveat I want to mention is that I realize this article is subjective to my positive experience in Japan and with their culture, but I do not for one minute believe that they are a perfect culture, or that all the clerks and company staff are truly happy to be under the constant weight of delivering 100% satisfaction all day, every day. I also do not believe that Japan has a monopoly on excellent customer service. This article is meant to share my insights and experience to help entrepreneurs question their definition of 'quality customer service' and to help grow their business to produce very happy customers and clients.
All the best,