Tag Archives: excellent customer service

One-Minute Insight: What Japanese Say About Foreign Customer Service

What do Japanese say about our customer service when we’re not around? And what can we do about it? The answers are a click away.

This is a new on-line training concept I recently developed with the help of a friend. A big mahalo to Roberto De Vido for help on the graphics and visuals!

Feedback is welcome. My first installment, so go ahead and click it, it’ll only take a minute!


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

The Power of Meibutsu

In my previous post I mentioned the Japanese word meibutsu or “local specialty”. Today we’ll look at meibutsu in the context of the restaurant business.

Anyone who has had the good fortune to travel around Japan knows that each geographic area boasts its own meibutsu. Indeed one of the joys of travel in Japan is the chance to sample meibutsu from the various prefectures. So popular is this practice that many Japanese will even consume food they don’t particularly care for. It’s not about the food; they are hungry for authenticity.

When we first moved to Hawaii my wife—born and raised in Japan—insisted on trying Loco Moco at a famous Hilo establishment. Knowing her aversion to greasy food I was sure she’d take a few token bites then leave the rest for me. But in just minutes my little Asian flower devoured two eggs, a beef patty, a slice of spam, and two Portuguese sausages on a mountain of rice smothered in gravy. She answered my question before I had a chance to ask:

“I’ll never eat this again, it’s too greasy.”

The first thought that popped into my head was, Why did she have to eat all of it? The answer, of course, is for the bragging rights to say she had eaten Hawaii’s famous meibutsu.

My wife’s attitude is reflective of her culture: meibutsu has special appeal for Japanese travelers because (again) it’s authentic. Featuring a local delicacy in your restaurant is an excellent way to attract Japanese customers, and connect them with local culture.

How Important is Service?

If you ask the Japanese, even the tastiest dish in the world is spoiled by bad service. I once observed a Japanese diner in a Chicago-area restaurant scold a young American server who brought him a cup of hot green tea filled to the brim. The cup was “too hot to hold,” said the irate customer before instructing the waiter on the exact amount of tea that should have been in the teacup (leaving about one-third unfilled). When the waiter left, the diner commented to his tablemates that the restaurant’s management was to blame for such poor service because of “insufficient training”.

Another cross-cultural mishap occurred at a premium resort in Hawaii where an angry Japanese guest reportedly sent back a bowl of ramen with a request that the chef, “please decorate noodle presentation”.

In the first example, we have a waiter who has never been instructed on the finer points of serving green tea in cups without handles. In the second example, the restaurant staff was oblivious to the importance Japanese guests place on aesthetics and food presentation.

These are minor cross-cultural infractions easily remedied with a sincere apology and sufficient effort to rectify the problem. But imagine all the mistakes that go unnoticed?

Unfortunately, more often than not an inconvenienced Japanese customer will choose not to verbalize dissatisfaction, so servers don’t get the benefit of learning from mistakes. Short of direct customer feedback, the most effective way to expose the hidden cultural pitfalls is through education and training.

What Level of Service do Japanese Diners Expect?

The bare-minimum expectation is that your employees master the basics: make guests feel welcome when they walk in the door; seat them promptly; get drinks on the table and a menu in their hands; then back up quality food with efficient, attentive service.

The magnitude of the culture gap becomes more apparent when you examine the different nuances of the word “attentive” in Japan and America.

The reality is Japanese customer service attempts to deliver a level of attentiveness some Americans would consider excessive, in some cases even intrusive. The unspoken goal of Japanese servers is to anticipate all customers’ needs and desires. Japanese service attempts to remove all decisions from the customer, a practice not necessarily appreciated by individualistic, choice-loving Americans. (In Japan, no choice of soup or salad, how your steak is prepared, or what to put on your baked potato; the meal is all “anticipated” for you.)

Hence, the ideal server in Japan is a mind reader who shows up at the customer’s side precisely when needed, clears dishes promptly, fills glasses just before they’re empty, and replaces used napkins before anyone realizes clean ones are needed.

If the Japanese standard strikes you as unachievable, that’s because it is. The good news is that Japanese customers don’t expect you to be perfect. The bad news is that they expect you to try very hard to be perfect. In the eyes of the Japanese, a sincere show of effort alone adds value to your product. Demonstrating effort is a surefire way to win the heart of even the most finicky, demanding Japanese customer.

Guidelines for Success

Master the basics. Know that quality is a given and effort buys you a lot.

Beyond the basics train servers to anticipate and proactively fulfill customer needs—the Japanese call this kikubari. The added benefit of kikubari is that it neutralizes the language barrier since words are not required to provide attentive, proactive service.

A little Japanese goes a long way. No doubt Japanese guests want to hear “aloha” when they walk into your restaurant. But when mistakes are made, the same guests expect to hear an apology in their own language. Train your staff accordingly.

If you really want to impress Japanese guests, encourage servers to learn simple Japanese words and phrases to describe featured dishes. Better yet, put pictures on your menu and translate into Japanese.

Consider featuring local Hawaii meibutsu in your shop as it works on many levels: It’s an effective way to attract Japanese customers; an opportunity to connect them with the Hawaii experience; a boost for the local economy; and it creates the conditions for employees to share aloha with Japanese guests.

Whatever market you serve, whatever measures you choose to employ, value comes from the personality and performance of your employees. A successful Japanese entrepreneur once told me that his only advantage over competitors was his team. Without his people, he said, his company would be nothing but an empty building filled with idle equipment. He worked in a different industry, but his logic rings especially true in the restaurant business.

In today’s competitive crunch it is no longer enough to just satisfy customers. It’s about creating high-value experiences that engage guests on a human level. The Japanese visitor market is hungry for a quality restaurant that can provide a unique culinary experience infused with tasty meibutsu, warm human interaction and kikubari-style service.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009