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Japanese Customer Service According to Joe

Every now and then I revisit my old posts. It usually happens when said post gets a flurry of new hits. It makes me want to go back and see what the fuss is all about! And there’s nothing like seeing one’s own ramblings from the past with a fresh set of eyes. Sometimes the comments are even better.

That’s exactly what happened the other day. A bunch of folks were kind enough to click on Japanese Customer Service Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry last week, a piece I wrote over three years ago. After reading it I noticed there were 28 comments in total, admittedly many my own because, well, you just can’t shut up the Irishman from Chicago!

One comment really jumped out and grabbed me. For a couple reasons: first, it was very incisive and well-written. Second, it was a great customer-service story told by my dear friend Joe Cyr, a kindred spirit who recently passed away. (See Footprints in my Heart for background.)

The story inspired reflection, and I decided to make the comment a post of its own. Can’t think of a better way to honor my friend, and also pass on his wisdom to anyone hoping to improve their customer service, or simply better understand Japanese culture.

To put the story in context, Joe was commenting specifically on the passage below that was in my original post:

“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!”

Here’s how my buddy Joe responded:

So very true.

One of my adult students back in the late 80′s worked for Hitachi. I just so happened to have a Hitachi VCR that stopped working for no apparent reason. I made the “mistake” of mentioning it to him one evening after class and wanted to know where I could get it repaired. Well, you’d think I blamed him for it not working, as I was totally unprepared for what ensued.

He immediately apologized profusely for the defective product and insisted on taking it to his factory where he worked to have it fixed. I balked, but he continued his apologizing and practically demanded that I turn it over to him which I did. To top it off, he returned to my house about a half hour later with his own VCR for me to use so I wouldn’t be inconvenienced while mine was being repaired!

How’s that for customer service? An employee apologizing for his entire firm and personally taking the product to the factory to have it repaired! Would, or could that ever happen in the US? I think not.

My VCR was personally returned to me about a week later with more apologies along with a 10 pack of blank cassettes, courtesy of the company, for a “defective” product!

As Erik mentioned above (citing another comment), ‘In fact by apologizing, the company is saying: “you are more important to me than my pride” ‘

In Japan, even today, they live by those words whereas, in the US they only pay lip service to the phrase “the customer is always right and most important.”

What a great customer service story! And as always, Joe was spot on in his analysis. Some other knowledgeable cross-cultural experts commented as well. I’ll add later after I get permission to quote them. Stay tuned!

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

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