Japanese-style Customer Service: the Art of Kikubari

It’s humbling to hear what Japanese say about American customer service. On the positive side we’re “kind,” “friendly,” “charming” and “warm.” But we can just as easily be mean, scary, obnoxious and aloof.

America is indeed a culture of extremes: when we’re good we’re really good. But when we’re bad we’re really bad. Most Japanese would rank average American customer service well below the average in Japan. Problem is, Japanese customers are notorious for not complaining when they feel mistreated–while they quietly stew in their own juice.

Here’s what they tell their friends and family when we’re not around: Americans don’t always keep their promises; don’t apologize for breaking promises; make excuses; don’t know how to properly speak to customers; and are not considerate.

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”).

The value of the employee’s thoughtful gesture was immeasurable. The cost to create this wonderful experience was a cup of tea.

What similar high-impact, low-cost measures bring instant value? Review the complaints listed above then educate your employees to do the opposite. Specifically, commit your organization to:

  • Keeping promises
  • Apologizing when customers are inconvenienced
  • Taking action to solve problems rather than making excuses
  • Learning to greet customers in a respectful way
  • Being observant and paying attention to detail
  • Practicing kikubari, the art of anticipation, with customers and with each other

All this requires training, of course. But it cuts much deeper than training. Business leaders in Western companies that serve the Japanese market have to first acknowledge the need to upgrade their product. Once leaders get their heads wrapped around Japanese expectations, most will understand the need to improve. Without leadership’s understanding and support, there’s no point in educating the troops, because nothing will stick.

Education is essential for opening minds to the creative possibilities and guiding employees on innovative ways to connect with Japanese customers. Education is also a low-cost-high-impact way to get quick results. It sets favorable conditions for leveraging the mind-power of  your people. The improvement ideas that come from the hearts and minds of employees always work best: if it’s their idea they’ll do it; if it’s someone else’s idea they won’t.

The foundation of any improvement strategy is staying true to your organization’s values and culture. Japanese guests seek authenticity; the last thing they want is their foreign hosts acting like Japanese! You have to be who you are. Kikubari is a natural and beautiful way to put Hawaii’s customer-service values into practice.

In the end human relationships trump all. They have the power to overcome rising costs, aging facilities, and the inevitable cross-cultural faux pas. Human bonds cemented by acts of kindness add precious value to the customer experience that money can’t buy. Kikubari is a simple but powerful way to reach out and build relationships with people from any culture. Whether or not you serve the Japanese market, making kikubari part of your customer service culture will give you a powerful edge over competitors that are reacting rather than anticipating.

For another take on kikubari check out The Dark Side of Japanese Customer Service

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

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