Japanese Customer Service 101: Bridging the Gap with Quality and Kindness

You don’t need a degree in cultural anthropology to connect with another culture. You don’t even need linguistic competence, although it helps. Sometimes all you need is little initiative, a quality mindset, and a good heart.

In the previous post I alluded to a “quality cadre of vendors” serving our Japanese clients. Here’s a story to warm your heart, complete with a moral and happy ending. But first some background.

Recently one of our Japanese clients asked us to find someone who could take care of their lawn. So we hooked them up with a young man whose services we’ve used on several projects in the past. He’s an honest, hard working guy who always does more than he’s asked. He looks rough and tough with his bandana, tats and Popeye arms, but inside he’s as soft and sweet as a marshmallow. His name is John. (I’m withholding his last name to protect his tough-guy image.)

This is a classic case study on how initiative, quality and aloha can be put to work in bridging the culture gap. Here’s what happened.

A couple weeks ago John was doing yard work for the aforementioned Japanese client. The elderly Japanese couple living across the street had apparently been watching him the whole time. When my wife stopped by to check on the yard the couple approached her with a request. They said they noticed John was working hard and doing a great job on their neighbor’s yard, and were wondering if he wouldn’t mind taking a look at their “leaky gutter”.

John was happy to oblige. Not expecting any compensation he quickly went to work. He borrowed their ladder and climbed up to take a look. He poured water in the gutter to see where the leak was and determined that the problem was a clogged downspout. (The rainwater had been overflowing from the gutter, not leaking). John then unscrewed the downspout, cleared out the obstruction and reassembled. Problem solved–in just under ten minutes!

When John was finished, the couple tried paying him but he declined. That of course just made them want to pay him even more, and he eventually accepted–with well-feigned reluctance I might add. 😉 Based on John’s standard hourly fee, the pay represented several hours of work, and he was thrilled with his good fortune. But this was much more than simply good fortune. John made his own luck. Just my kind of guy.

The elderly couple then told my wife the story behind the story.

Turns out the couple had someone already doing their yard work. A few weeks earlier they had asked him to look at the gutter problem. He agreed to give it a gander, albeit reluctantly. He started out the same way John did: got the ladder, climbed up to take a look. But this is where the similarity ends. Gazing at the gutter the guy shook his head, climbed down the ladder, got in his truck and went home without a word. The couple didn’t see him until the next time he showed up to do yard work, at which time he pretended it never happened. (I don’t have the imagination to make this stuff up.)

The fact that he left without showing any effort–without offering an apology or explanation–really stuck in their craw. Looking at it through Japanese eyes it was not only unprofessional; it was downright rude. And the couple had been stewing about it for some time. They must’ve seen how hard John was working, compared him to their guy and got inspired to reconsider their options.

(And this is a precautionary tale–another case study if you will–on how not to connect with the Japanese. I call this the “Costanza rule” and only Seinfeld fans know what I’m talking about: the Costanza rule states that before you make any decision or take any course of action, ask yourself what George Costanza would do–then do the opposite!)

But to the Japanese couple, John was looking a lot more like Superman than George Costanza. The Japanese husband then asked John if he’d mind coming back another day to take a look at their “broken” lawnmower (turned out it wasn’t broken after all). John looked at it, figured it just needed new oil and some minor maintenance, and promised to come back the next day. On his way home he picked up a quart of oil then returned the next day as promised. When he was done changing the oil he mowed their lawn to “test it out”. When the lawn was finished he cleaned and polished the lawnmower until it shined. They paid him, once again more than he expected.

Then came the big reward: they asked if John would be willing to take care of their lawn on a regular basis. Of course he said yes, and everyone lived happily ever after–except of course, the goofy inept guy who lacked the determination and smarts to disassemble and clean out the downspout.

Yes indeed, John is just our kind of service provider. And because he does such a good job we throw lots of work his way. He’s staying busy these days.

Why are we so picky about who we introduce to Japanese friends and clients? Because we play by the rules of Japanese culture: we must take responsibility for the actions of anyone we introduce to a friend or client. Put another way, if someone we introduce makes a mistake then we own it too. This doesn’t seem fair, but if you can’t accept this reality then you have no business serving the Japanese market.

In light of this reality a lot of our job entails “absorbing” (=quietly correcting) mistakes so clients don’t see them, or apologizing for mistakes that slip through the cracks. And in the worst case scenario, we’d even shell out our own money to re-do a project if (God forbid) a vendor we introduced turned out to be a crook, incompetent, or both. Thankfully this last scenario has never happened. But if it did we’d absolutely take responsibility. It’s not about money or fairness, it’s about sustaining our business: without integrity, our product has no value.

No surprise then that we’re nitpicky about who we introduce to Japanese clients. Here’s our “bare-minimum” list of vendor attributes:

1) Proven high-quality work

2) Always does more than asked

3) Keeps promises and guarantees work

4) Follows our advice on cross-cultural matters

5) Looks for opportunities to do kind things for clients (aloha has the power to erase even serious mistakes)

6) Understands the importance of building personal relationships with clients

This combination of attributes is rare. But I’m happy to report that John isn’t the only local service provider who’s got the goods. We’re finding some real hidden gems here in Puna Land, and I look forward to sharing their success stories in future posts.

For more information on Japanese expectations of customer service, check out this piece I wrote last year (also published in Hawaiian Hospitality Magazine): Japanese-style Customer Service: the Art of Kikubari.

For more on Japanese customer service, check out this short clip of me doing a customer-service seminar at Halekulani.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009


4 responses to “Japanese Customer Service 101: Bridging the Gap with Quality and Kindness

  1. Aloha Tim! The same customer service techniques can be applied by any business person, whether servicing Japanese clients or American clients. Japanese clients definitely do raise the customer service expectations bar since that is what they expect in Japan….and I think that is good for American venders to experience as it will help them improve their customer service leading to improved profits from all of their clients. Besides making good business sense I see businesses which provide superb client service see their overall team morale go wayyy up….making it a great place to work!

  2. It’s not rocket science, the same stuff my parents taught me when I got my first paper route. And Grif, you nailed a key point: If you can make the Japanese happy you can make anyone happy, so it’s a great standard to shoot for.

  3. ….And, once you’ve lived in this system, you realize it’s not demanding after all, since everyone truly wins.

  4. Love it. Very true indeed.

    I try to apply these kind of principles within my own company as I have felt the benefits big time first hand of Japanese customer service on many occasions. It really is the only way to go.

    And after experiencing it, getting some really ordinary “can’t be bothered” typical western service really makes you feel ill, it can be quite disgusting. And it’s all too easy to find pathetic “barely good enough” customer service in the western world.

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