What Western Companies Can Learn from Japan’s Customer Service

When it comes to customer service, you would think that western companies have it down pat. But not until you have been to Japan, then you will see the huge gap businesses in the west have to fill in. “One of the most awesome things about Japan is that you can expect amazing customer service just about anywhere,” said this Japan Today article.
Many Westerners who have visited Japan are impressed by how the Japanese deliver customer service, no matter where they are. And one description that stands out is that Japanese are very personal with their customer service—Japanese or foreigner customers alike.
No matter how advanced Japan has become in terms of technology, they have kept sacred the traditional ways of service, which still blows their customers away.
There is much we can learn from the Japanese and the way they cater to their customers. What are they doing differently that western companies need to amplify in their customer service? Let’s have a look, shall we?

1. Sincerity in their gratitude and apology.

This guy was so touched by the post office’s earnest apology for not being able to ship their package at first but was able to make it happen eventually, that he only had high praises for the lady who assisted him when he blogged it. Likewise, Bridget Brennan’s observation of the Japanese retail environment saw the genuine appreciation Japanese give their customers regardless if she bought something from their store or not.
Needless to say, from a common guy to a marketing expert, Japan’s customer service shows sincerity when they say “Thank You” and “We’re sorry.” Saying these phrases need not be mechanical. With the proper tone and heart-felt intention, let your customers feel the authenticity of your appreciation and apology each time they do business with you.

2. Politeness in every customer interaction.

The Japanese are known for their politeness so we are not surprised that it spilled over to their customer service delivery. It is one trait that stands out every time a person is asked about their customer experience in Japan. We believe their sincerity in saying their thank you’s and apologies come forth from this very character. They are very mindful of their customers that even if people have not stepped foot in their stores yet, they would still greet them outside.
According to Ric Phillips, this attribute of the Japanese gives anyone a VIP treatment and he fondly recalls his own experience when he needed customer assistance, that he literally is all smiles whenever he purchases something. Politeness runs short in many customer interactions of western companies. And if we can learn to extend more of it to customers, then we’ll have more happy and smiling clients than unsatisfied and frustrated ones.

3. Innovative in their service approach.

There’s a common anecdote that Japanese think of the most outrageous inventions, but they do work. It just goes to show that they would find ways to make it easier for their consumers—such is the idea of attendants busting out of walls to help distressed commuters when they find themselves in trouble. The novel idea may seem funny, but come to think of it, they are the first in the world who did this. The troubled commuters appreciated how the management of the train stations incorporated push buttons to call for the attendants who then immediately came at their aid right through the walls!

Watch what happens when this foreigner in Japan who was having troubles purchasing a subway ticket  pressed the “help” button in the machine. 

When businesses consider their customer’s convenience, they would look for innovative means to accomplish that. Coming up with new ways to attend to customers’ needs that is fast, competent and creative makes your customer service superb.

4. Always apply positive shopping etiquette.

Japanese stores make sure that the moment the customers step into their doors, they are guaranteed a positive shopping experience. Therefore, from the greeting of the store attendants to the layout of the store, everything is done with classy taste and etiquette.
Boutique attendants are trained to only say honest and pleasant things when they speak with customers. Customers always have their full attention because chatting during store hours is definitely unacceptable. Even Japanese customers see the stark contrast of the west’s customer service delivery from what they are accustomed to back home.
Applying good shopping etiquette shows that you respect your consumers regardless of what kind of culture they are from by maintaining an avenue where every customer feels honored. Keep it classy when you attend to your customers’ concerns and they will surely reciprocate the gesture.

5. The Art of Kikubari (“key-koo-BAH-ri”)

Being proactive in customer service has a name in Japan, and it is called Kikubari. Tim Sullivan mentioned in this post what Kikubari was all about by narrating his experience:
“What level of customer service do Japanese get in Japan? A personal experience at a Japanese hotel tells the story: on the way to meet the chairman of a company that employed me at the time, I walked for twenty minutes in the sticky heat of Japan’s late-July summer. I entered the lobby of the Otsuki Hotel drenched in sweat. The chairman had not yet arrived so I found a sitting area to wait.
Meanwhile, an observant clerk behind the check-in counter noticed my discomfort, and took it upon herself to bring me a glass of iced barley tea and a chilled oshibori towel. She anticipated my needs and fulfilled them proactively, the ultimate in Japanese-style customer service. The Japanese call this “kikubari” (pronounced “key-koo-BAH-ree”).”
While this article is mainly educating western business leaders how to deal with their Japanese clients, we can learn that this same principle may be applied even to non-Japanese customers.
Overall, the art of Kikubari is a great way to show your customers that you have everything taken cared of even before they ask.
We won’t be surprised if Japanese tourism continues to soar. With the kind of customer service they provide, people will be clamoring to visit Japan and experience customer satisfaction at its finest.
(Photo Source)

James Patterson
James Patterson

James Patterson, Head of Business Development, Global Corporate Clients joined transcosmos in 2007. He oversees business development and sales and marketing initiatives throughout the EMEA and APAC regions for transcosmos IT and Customer Support Services, managing a team of sales professionals and consultants in these territories. James fully understands and supports the requirements and challenges of complex IT Support and Customer Service environments, having guided an array of large organizations through the consultative process of developing complex solutions to fit the customer’s needs. Previous to transcosmos, James was a regional Sales Manager in the Health and Leisure Industry winning many awards for exceeding sales targets and being innovative.

One Reply to “What Western Companies Can Learn from Japan’s Customer Service”

  1. Appreciate the link to my piece on Kikubari. Glad to see others recognizing the service culture that’s evolved in Japan. Lots to learn from the Japanese–like kikubari–but Western organizations also have great attributes that work in their favor.
    My image of Japanese service plotted on a bell curve, would be a very high average with tight distribution that represents consistency. (Even the clerk at 7-11 Japan hands you that bento box like it’s a diamond-encrusted watch.) If you could plot my country’s service level (the U.S.) and show it on a bell curve, it would be wide and flat with a much lower average than Japan’s. Said another way, we’re be all over the map because, when we’re good we’re really good, but when we’re bad we’re really bad. The challenge for many U.S. companies then, is tightening that curve (creating more consistency) and raising the average. I know companies that have done it, so it’s possible. (I’d be interested in hearing a European perspective as well.)
    I think that one of the strengths of many “Westerners” is we tend to bring our personalities and sense of humor to work. (Not that our humor necessarily translates across cultures.) In contrast, Japanese service tends to be more “mechanical” and sometimes even a little too proactive (see linked article for more on this). No surprise I urge clients NOT to try and act “Japanese”, as it will surely creep out their Japanese customers. 🙂 Instead, I help them understand the needs and expectations of Japanese customers, then challenge them to figure out how to best deliver service that reflects their own culture, and comes from a place of authenticity.
    For a counterintuitive take on kikubari, you might enjoy THE DARK SIDE OF JAPANESE CUSTOMER SERVICE (http://wp.me/pnmlQ-Tj)

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