Data from the American Express Global Customer Service Barometer details striking differences among travelers across Australia, Canada, India, Italy, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, Singapore, the U.K. and the U.S. According to the study, "In Japan (52%), … the highest proportion of consumers say that companies do not get a second chance to make a good impression when it comes to customer service."
According to Retail Doctor Bob Phibbs, the problem is "most [brands] have deep pockets but short arms. Unless it affects them personally, the money to fix the problem is seen as something that can be avoided." Have we become so accustomed to poor service that we’re willing to take whatever we get? Or is there a cultural lesson woven into the numbers from which all businesses can learn a lesson?
Tipping is an entirely foreign concept in Japan, according to one business travel reference manual, "because service, without bribery, is assumed to be part of everyone’s job." Apparently, this expectation of consistent exceptional customer service arises at least in part from the principal of omotenashi, translated as "hospitality." Hospitality sets the expectation for a certain caliber of service, but omotenashi means so much more.
According to tourism website Welcome to Tour-Kansai, "omotenashi represents the act of providing detailed service in a variety of ways to allow guests to spend a relaxing and memorable time by putting customers first."
Ex-pat and author Katie Anderson writes, "The spirit of omotenashi is the reason for the amazing service one gets at department stores, shops, restaurants, train stations, taxi, and chance encounters with strangers."
After only browsing in a Tokyo shop, Forbes.com contributor Bridget Brennan was accompanied outside and onto the sidewalk by a sales associate who bowed, thanking her for coming into the store. Her experience of omotenashi was what most Western consumers would consider "white glove service."
"Three Ways the Japanese Do Customer Service Better"
In her article "Three Ways the Japanese Do Customer Service Better," Brennan references enthusiasm, helpfulness and appreciation as key service differentiators, not only in terms of what is provided, but, as the American Express survey indicates, what is expected. Despite technology, population density and the fast pace of life and commerce in Japan, hospitality and respect still represent essential elements of the customer experience.
Is the lowest price worth poor treatment? Or, having been consistently disappointed by Western culture that values consideration and service so much less than Japan, do we not know to expect any better? Marco Bertini and Luc Wathieu, writing for the Harvard Business Review, explain this disconnect, describing the "commoditized customer:"
Constant price undercutting can damage brand equity and erode profit margins. Meanwhile, customers develop low expectations and become disengaged. To get what we need as consumers, it sounds like that means we just don’t have to care. However, as business owners seeking to differentiate, not caring and failing to build value-added relationships is unacceptable.
According to Rochelle Kopp, founder and managing principal of international training and consulting firm Japan Intercultural Consulting, applying the lessons that Japanese service businesses understand so well has the capacity to create customer engagement and brand loyalty that elevate your business from commodities pusher to service partner. The customer service differentiator is not connected primarily to what customers buy from your business, but rather how those acquisitions make them feel about themselves and about your business.
Learn not to say no
Certain things are expected by Japanese customers, including credibility, long-term commitment and superior quality. In addition, many businesses assign a contact to a customer who is both accessible and can be relied upon for quick and positive responses from the customer at any time.
So, what are the key takeaways from how Japanese retail businesses provide service to their customers that you can learn and implement in your own business?
Value your relationships
What does your business look like in the rearview mirror? It should matter to businesses how current customers, prospective customers or those who’ve done business with you previously perceive your products, services and company.
Brennan described it like this: "Wherever I ventured, in stores large and small, I experienced what would be considered white-glove service back home, delivered with the kind of warmth, enthusiasm, and salesmanship typically found in black-and-white movies … it was intoxicating."
Find a way to say yes
As opposed to merely managing the expectations of commoditized customers, harmony is highly valued in Japanese business interactions. Our Western commoditized market is one in which buyers display rampant skepticism, routine behaviors, minimal expectations, and a strong preference for swift and effortless transactions regardless of product differentiation.