The only thing we deliver or are trying to deliver to our guests is satisfaction . . . we have nothing else…In our business, no excuse is accepted when something goes wrong…”
President and General Manager, Hotel Okura
One of the common complaints I hear from Japanese folks about American customer service is that when Americans break a promise, rather than apologizing they make excuses. This is more a gap in cultural expectations than an indictment of American manners. And it begs some questions:
Why are Americans so uncomfortable apologizing?
Why is it that when confronted with criticism, many Americans tend to get defensive?
And why would the Japanese be any different?
American behavior is driven to a large degree by how Americans define the concept of responsibility within the context of a society that values individualism. So back to the first two questions: why are Americans uncomfortable apologizing and why so defensive? The answer is that the mere act of apologizing in America is often interpreted as an admission of personal (read “individual”) guilt. After all, someone’s got to accept responsibility. No surprise that no one wants to step forward and take the rap as it can wreak havoc on one’s reputation or career. For this reason, when Americans give “reasons” for making a mistake they are, more often than not, on the defensive–victims of circumstance outside of their control. No one told me about the schedule change! And so on.
In contrast, the Japanese tend to dilute responsibility by divvying it up amongst team members. And since apologizing is less an admission of guilt than an expression of regret that someone was inconvenienced, it makes it a lot easier for Japanese to apologize than Americans. So everyone apologizes and it’s all good!
The Japanese put a lot of importance on honoring social commitments. The Confucian code of morality dictates that if a promise is made, then the honorable man must do his utmost to fulfill it at all costs. Not to do so would be a terrible loss of face. This helps explain why the Japanese have less tolerance for accepting “reasons” given after a promise has gone unfulfilled, especially if the broken promise involves the almighty customer. Most explanations deemed reasonable by American standards would be called “excuses” by most Japanese. And while this doesn’t jibe well with the American concept of “fairness”, it’s how the Japanese see the world through their Confucian-colored glasses. Breaking a promise in Japanese society requires some pretty dire circumstances before you can expect any sympathy or understanding.
So if a mistake is made with your Japanese customer (whether it was your fault or not), the best thing to do is bow and say Moshi wake gozaimasen, literally, “There is no excuse.” How interesting that the most polite way of apologizing in Japanese in essence forbids the offender to even consider making an excuse.
A Japanese executive at a large tier-one automotive company told me years ago that all his suppliers made mistakes, but the good ones responded quickly to rectify their problems. The message here is, if you goof up with a Japanese customer don’t hesitate to apologize. Then focus on rectifying the problem immediately. Sincerity carries a lot of weight with the Japanese, so offering a small gift, discount or concession goes a long way in making things right. In the end the Japanese customer will judge you on both your effort and end results. Fulfilling your promise to “take care of the problem immediately” is not only your ticket to redemption; it’s an opportunity to grow even closer to your customer.
For more on this topic, check out American Customer Service Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry.
For more on Japanese-style customer service, check out this short clip of me delivering a customer-service seminar at Halekulani.
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009