Tag Archives: customer service

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


Living the Dream in Hawaii

Aloha and welcome! I’m Tim Sullivan.

The Twilight Zone is a great metaphor for my line of work, because when two cultures collide strange things happen. My job is to sort through the confusion and make the twain meet.

What’s my gig? I run a cross-cultural consultancy focused on Japan-US business relations. As of this writing, I have over 30 years’ experience working with the Japanese, the past 20 helping Japanese and Americans bridge differences in the workplace. My wife Kurumi is Japanese, so she’s been dealing with the Japanese even longer. Most clients know us as “Tim and Kurumi“, and that’s how we like it because our business is built on personal, trusting relationships.

My areas of expertise include cross-cultural management, customer service, and executive team-building. I do a lot of public speaking here in Hawaii and on the mainland. Kurumi focuses more on expat and retiree relocation, and provides training and hands-on cultural interface services.

How did I get into this line of work? Dumb luck and taking opportunities when they presented themselves. After teaching English for almost 10 years in Japan, I got thoroughly burnt out on the gig and was looking for a new direction. My big break came in 1987 when I joined a factory start-up team in a Japanese company in Shizuoka prefecture, then was repatriated back to America for a temporary stint that was supposed to last two years. Long story short, my Japanese wife fell in love with America and we never made it back to Japan.

Other career experiences include a stint as assistant to a Japanese production control manager, customer support service manager, management consultant (with the illustrious “Japan Management Association Consultants”), and 4 years as plant manager in an American injection molding/assembly plant.

My academic credentials include a degree in Cross-Cultural Studies from International Christian University Tokyo. My senior thesis was on “Black Humor In Rakugo” (Japanese Classical Comic Storytelling). Never imagined in my wildest dreams that studying comedy would be useful in the real world. But Rakugo provided a great model to emulate in developing my presentation style in Japanese — not to mention an enlightening glimpse at the Japanese sense of humor.

One more point worth mentioning regarding humor: it can be an effective tool in facilitating communication when tensions are high between polarized groups. If you’ve attended one of our Reflection Workshops then you know they end in a borderline love-fest. Yeah, it’s creepy, but in a good way.

For the record, I speak, read and write Japanese–just don’t ask me to write it without a word processor.

The irony of the market I work in, is companies that need me the most don’t use my services while the really great companies that need me the least, use my services all the time. (See client list below.)

Why? I’m guessing that the best companies stay humble enough to keep getting better–and the mediocre companies don’t.

Clients include Halekulani, Hawaiian Airlines, Royal Hawaiian, Christian Dior, Nordstrom, Hilton Grand Vacations Club, Pacific Air Force Command and Hawaii Tourism Authority.

A few years back I co-authored with Rochelle Kopp, a book on “factory English”. It started out as an English book but morphed into a cross-cultural novel about a successful factory turnaround (with English lessons included). And when we finished the book, we decided it should have a long, awkward title that’s impossible to remember. We rose to the challenge and christened it: “Kore de Kaigai Kojo de Umaku Shigoto ga Dekiru (“Now You Can Work Successfully in Your Overseas Factory”). If you’re not Japanese, it’s definitely not for you. But if you’re an American working for the Japanese (particularly in the manufacturing industry), you’d do yourself a big favor by giving your Japanese boss a copy. Trust me on this, he’ll be totally indebted to you. It’s published by PHP New York and available here.

But enough of the manufacturing talk! Our most exciting product (and passion) is made possible by our relationship with a local educational institution: authentic educational experiences for Japanese “students of Hawaii”, with the option of home-stays. The mission of these programs is to deepen cross-cultural understanding between Japan and Hawaii, while promoting authentic Hawaiian culture to Japan. More on this in future posts.

Puna Sunrise

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that we live near Hilo on the beautiful island of Hawai’i. The picture above is a typical sunrise in our little corner of paradise. You haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed this spectacular morning event while sipping a piping hot cup of Puna coffee. This is just one of many great reasons to visit the Big Island for your next vacation. Contrary to popular myth there are affordable ways to enjoy Hawaii, particularly in our special part of the islands

When I’m not writing, working or enjoying the beautiful Big Island with my family, I’m hunched over the only material possession I truly value: my Gibson Acoustic Jumbo Classic. I stick to 3-chord blues for the most part, but occasionally dabble in jazz and folk. It’s a hobby, all in good fun.

That’s more than enough about me. Just a final word about this blog: it’s a way to share with anyone who cares, my passion for promoting cooperation and goodwill between Japanese and Westerners. Hopefully you’ll feel the passion in ensuing posts–in the Intercultural Twilight Zone.

We welcome your feedback and insights.

Aloha nui from Hawaii 🙂

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2008