In Japan, “The customer is God” is a common customer service phrase drilled into waiters and waitresses and presented in just about every training session given to a new employee. On the surface, this seems to result in great customer service that is the talking point of many a tourist who visits the country. However, as a long-term foreign resident in Japan, I have been frustrated time and again by Japanese service, and now find it hard to believe that Japan will ever be a world-leading customer service nation.
Don’t get me wrong; Japanese customer service is good, and more than anything, it is unbelievably consistent. Complete standardization of service brings about the utter perfection with which food is prepared here in Japan. You almost never see a wilting leaf of lettuce, or a poorly prepared meal. You can go to just about any run-of-the-mill restaurant in Japan and never walk out disappointed with the food you were served. I love it. Japan is one of the best all-around places to eat good food. In the U.S., where I grew up, and in just about all of the nearly 50 countries that I have traveled to in my life, it is no surprise when you visit an unknown restaurant, and leave disappointed with the food. In Japan, I have rarely been surprised.
But once you have lived in this country for an extended period of time, you realize that Japan is not really the Mecca of customer service at all. Japanese customer service has been standardized to the point of feeling soulless at times. The flawless execution of the product part of the service delivery is usually at the expense of any room to maneuver outside the instruction manual, any real warmth on the part of the person serving you and thus, a somewhat hollow customer experience.
How many times have you sat down and asked for some small deviation from the set menu, only to be told: “Sorry, we can’t do that,” when in reality it is a simple and easy to fulfill request?
A common scenario occurs when ordering a beer with a small amount of foam or head ("awa sukuname"), a common request of foreigners especially when you are paying up to 1,000 yen a beer, and the waiter brings you a perfectly half-filled glass. While unbelievable in any Western country, in Japan, when you ask for anything that requires even the smallest exception to the standard service, more often than not, you will hear either “Sorry, we can’t do that,” or you get exactly what you asked for (a glass of beer without foam, but only half full).
A case in point: My wife and I had lunch at a local burger shop in Shinjuku recently. My wife, who is Japanese, asked for an iced tea without ice, and was promptly served a literally half-full glass of Oolong tea. We looked at each other and could not help but laugh, as we had just happened to be talking about these kind of service situations. This situation seems ridiculous when you think about the tea bag which makes a liter or two of Oolong tea for the cost of a few yen.
Another illustration is McDonald's in Japan, and if you’ve eaten at McDonald's in Japan, you probably know where I am heading with this. In my particular case, I like to order a side of BBQ sauce with my fries, and even better, I have a personal favorite custom of putting BBQ sauce on my cheeseburger to make a very tasty BBQ cheeseburger. It can be insanely frustrating when asking for as simple a thing as a small packet of BBQ sauce, and even being willing to pay for it, only to be told: “No, sorry, we can’t do that.” I broke down in frustration at the Shinbamba station McDonald's near Shinagawa a few years back and said “Fine, give me chicken McNuggets, and hold the nuggets,” and paid 249 yen for two BBQ sauce packets. I have not been back to McDonald's in Japan since.
I don’t blame the server or the person at the cash register for the inflexibility. They are just following the manual which is incredibly rigid and allows for little or no bending of the rules. There is never any intention of malice or annoyance. And there is never any lack of politeness or friendliness on the part of Japanese service staff. Staff are generally friendly but I find it is a false or insincere friendliness that is obviously right out of line 34 of the training manual. You can often see the catalogue smile on the clerk’s face wane if you ask for anything remotely out of the ordinary. Back home, friendliness is by no means guaranteed when you walk into a shop or restaurant but when you do find it, it tends to be genuine and sincere. The one place in Japan that I have consistently found that kind of warm, deep down friendliness from the serving staff is at Starbucks.
There are many more cases of efficient but inflexible customer service I have experienced myself or heard about from other foreigners. The phenomenon exists across multiple industries and sectors: banking, cell phone shops, the city hall, hospitals, or retail institutions such as clothing stores or electronic stores. Even hotels, the epitome of service in many other countries, can generate intense frustration here in Japan. The complaints that I hear nearly always relate to the complete inflexibility and unwillingness to adjust to an individual customer’s incredibly small and usually quite reasonable needs. This often has us walking out the door vowing that we will never return. This is where the expression “Okyakusan wa Kamisama” or “The customer is God” falls flat on its face.
So where did the soul in Japanese customer service go? It seems that service in Japan has been shaped by a manufacturing mentality that forgets there is a human being at the end of the service, with individual preferences. There appears to be an overwhelming need to prioritize the process over the experience.
If I were to try to define “customer service” in its most simple form, I would say that it is “Adjusting to the individual customer needs in advance of them even asking, whenever possible, and creating the best possible experience for that particular customer.” Winning the heart and loyalty of a customer by going the extra mile when you don’t have to is the hallmark of great customer service companies.
The common (Japanese) man or woman on the street generally accepts the way things are delivered in their vanilla form. This is a country where, more often than not, the nail that stands up gets hammered right back down, so the pressure to change is still very relatively small. Unfortunately, because of this lack of impetus to change, Japan has done and will continue to do badly in the international service market.
Why is it important for Japanese service organizations to compete internationally? Well, it would certainly give the economy a kick-start. According to Wikipedia, agriculture makes up 4%, industry 32%, and services a whopping 64% of global GDP. Can you name one Japanese company that has succeeded in a pure services industry, on any major scale, outside of Japan? Take a look at CNN’s list of the world’s top 500 companies by size. Japan has 71 companies on the list, but not one is an international services company. There are a few domestic Japanese services companies, but the bulk of the Japanese companies on the list are manufacturing and industrial.
To compete internationally, Japanese service companies need to shift focus to the individual customer experience as the “product” They need to understand customer needs and train staff to be flexible in meeting these needs. And, in reality, training alone is not enough. Only staff who are happy and motivated in their jobs will truly go out of their way to give a great customer experience. The “Customer comes second” mantra of renowned CEO Hal Rosenbluth is at the heart of obtaining great customer service through looking after the people that work for you.
Japanese service production and process is world-leading, and I would say that Japan possesses about 80-90% of what it needs to be the best customer service country in the World. The remaining 10-20% encompasses individual customer needs being accommodated and a bit of genuine care for the customer. If companies here achieved that last 10-20%, they would push global standards for customer service to new highs and put Japan and Japanese service on the map. Without it, Japan will continue to lag behind other nations, and remain the world’s most powerful economy without a service sector leading company on the global stage.© Japan Today