Tag Archives: Japanese customer service

American Customer Service Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

A couple months ago I went shopping for new car insurance. Got a quote from a reputable company that turned out to be cheaper than my incumbent insurer. So I made the switch.

Fast-forward to last week when my new agent informed me my premium was going up because, according to their underwriters, my traffic abstract indicated “two recent speeding tickets,” the last one a year ago, the prior one three months before that.

This was news to me. I clearly remembered getting one ticket in the recent past, but couldn’t for the life of me recall two. My initial reaction was to question my sanity. Was I getting so forgetful in my old age that I wouldn’t remember a speeding ticket? I racked my brain but was drawing blanks.

So I shot an email to said agent asking for confirmation that the abstract was indeed correct. Without checking he assured me that the underwriters were “very accurate with their research,” and that I must’ve forgotten, end of story.

I’m embarrassed to admit that he almost convinced me I was senile. And I probably would’ve let the whole thing slide had I not glimpsed the revised quote showing an 80% increase in my premiums!

Needless to say, this was enough to make me reconsider my premature-senility theory, and further scrutinize the traffic abstract. Turns out the first speeding ticket was issued on October 16th 2012, the second on January 1st 2013. So I pulled out my trusty checkbook ledger and quickly found a record of payment to the county court for the first violation, case number and all. So far so good.

But it was the January 1st ticket that was bugging me. One, because I would’ve absolutely remembered getting a speeding ticket on the first day of the year, and two, there was no record of me ever having paid it. So either the ticket never happened or….I forgot about it, neglected to pay it, in which case the police would’ve issued a warrant for my arrest. This would definitely be on record. It wasn’t.

Emboldened, I sent another email to my agent challenging the second ticket on the grounds stated in the previous paragraph. Here’s how he responded:

Hi Tim, I have some good news for you. The second speeding ticket is one and the same as the ticket on 10/16/2012. Evidently, when we initially did the quote that was the best guess estimate. The underwriters took the 1/1/13 date as an additional ticket.

As you can see when mistakes are made in my culture, rather than apologizing, customer service folks default to the positive spin. Absent was an awareness on the agent’s part that he wasted my time, absent was any concern about my fragile memory, absent was any hint of regret that they made a mistake. Instead, he had “good news” for me.

The late and great George Carlin would call this response “high quality manufactured bullshit.” As a former salesman who once made a living in corporate America’s customer-service spin zone, I can vouch that Carlin’s description is spot on.

Now compare my agent’s happy spin to this story, as told by a dear old American friend who lived in Japan for fifteen years.

“One of my adult (Japanese) 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!”

In fairness the Japanese apology is not always sincere. But at least they pretend to care, and usually do the right thing.

Don’t get me wrong–I don’t expect Americans to behave like the Japanese. What I did expect in this instance was for my agent to preface his words with a simple “I’m so sorry for the misunderstanding, here’s how the mix up occurred and here’s how we’ll rectify the matter.”

Admittedly I’ve been spoiled by Japan’s excellent customer service. But regardless of culture, is a simple apology too much to ask for?

For more on how culture drives customer service in Japan, check out Japanese Customer Service Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014


One Minute Insight: The Art of Japanese Kikubari Service

What makes Japanese customer service so special? In a word, “kikubari,” the art of anticipation. Learn how you can improve customer service, build relationships and connect cultures–without spending a penny. And it’ll only take a minute!

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!

The Dark Side of Japanese Customer Service


Back in my Japan university days I eked out a living teaching English conversation part time. Made just enough money to support a weekend gallivanting habit too. It was a hand-to-mouth bachelor existence, and I was having the time of my life.

But no gallivanting for me on Thursday evenings, when I’d rush off campus in Mitaka Tokyo, jump on the bus to Kichijoji Station where I’d take the Inokashira line to Shimokitazawa, then ride the Odakyu Express out to the Japanese boonies on the outskirts of Atsugi City. In all it took me two hours door to door.

My Thursday student was a Japanese doctor. Unlike my other doctor students whom I taught at the local hospital, Dr. Thursday wanted private lessons at his home, where we conspired every week to fake our way through an English lesson, sessions in which I mostly listened to his troubles and regrets, secrets he would never have dared tell his family and friends.

Our therapy sessions would get especially interesting on the rare occasion the doc would crack open a couple cold Sapporo drafts. I normally didn’t drink on the job but he was the customer after all. And as they say in Japan, “the customer is god.” So when doc picked up the beer I held out my glass for him to pour, reciprocated, then toasted our fake English class. No one was more qualified to do this job than me.

Being a foreigner was a big part of my qualifications. Thoroughly insulated from the doctor’s inner group I was one of the safest sounding boards in all of Japan. Indeed I was the only game in town where he could go confess his sins with no social repercussions. I was “Father Timothy” without the penance and Catholic guilt. So our English class was really the doctor’s weekly refuge from the oppressive social pressure cooker he inhabited most of his waking hours. Dr. Thursday paid me fair market price to lend a sympathetic ear. By default I became an unlicensed therapist—at English-teacher prices.

Looking back at these weekly sessions—and all my other private students back then—collectively they provided a precious glimpse into the soul of modern Japan. In this case my subject was an intelligent, successful Japanese doctor who, on paper, should have been the happiest man on earth. In fact he had spent his whole life making others happy: happy parents, happy in-laws, happy family, happy teachers and happy patients. Even his wife looked happy, but you never knew for sure.

And yet the good doctor didn’t strike me at all as being happy himself. So my job as his fake English teacher (as I saw it) was to keep the session as happy and engaging as possible, and hopefully sneak in some English chops along the way. Well, my approach was apparently (and literally) “just what the doctor ordered,” as the gig had legs, lasting through college and well beyond. I eventually handed the doctor off to a capable friend (a real English teacher) when I got a regular job and moved back to the States. Never thought I’d say this, but I miss those Thursday evening sessions with doc.

Kikubari Blues

This particular gig had a tight, predictable routine. From the moment I’d knock on the doctor’s front door the same scenario would unfold, my weekly deja-vu moment: the doctor’s wife would answer the door, greet me with a bow, and escort me to the coffee table in their living room where I’d sit on their comfy Western-style sofa, and wait for the busy doctor to call me to his office upstairs. When he was ready.

In the meantime the wife would bring me a cup of instant coffee with lots of cream and sugar in it. I would thank her, drink just enough to show my appreciation, then leave the rest untouched.

By unilaterally deciding that I, the foreigner from America, wanted to drink sweet, creamy instant coffee, doc’s wife was practicing what Japanese call “kikubari”, the fine art of anticipation.

Likely the wife wasn’t even conscious of her own behavior. She was so culturally programmed to practice kikubari that she could do it in her sleep, and probably did. And because her knowledge of my culture was limited, she was clueless about what I really wanted: choice. I can only guess that she assumed Americans like sugary, creamy, instant coffee—so that’s what I got.

In fairness the doctor’s wife had part of it right. I do love coffee. In the morning. Freshly brewed. With a little cream. No sweetener.

But if she had thought to give me a choice, I’d have done the perfunctory refusal before humbly accepting a cup of green tea, one of my favorite drinks in the world. And while I truly appreciated the intent behind the wife’s thoughtful kikubari gesture, the downside was that I ended up drinking way too many half cups of creamy sugary coffee.

No complaints because it was a great gig. But thought it would be worthwhile in today’s post to ponder the cultural ramifications of overdoing the kikubari thing, particularly when an unsuspecting, choice-loving individualistic Westerner is on the receiving end.

The Dark Side of Kikubari

What happens when kikubari is unleashed outside Japan’s cultural borders?

It’s useful to compare two cultural extremes. Start by picturing in your head a “bell curve of anticipation.” On the far right end of the curve is Japan, the land of unbridled kikubari, where hosts are expected to anticipate all their guests whims and desires—to a fault. Other Asian/Confucian cultures have similar kikubari tendencies, so would be in the same general neighborhood on the curve.

It makes perfect sense that Confucian cultures have kikubari built into their hospitality model because the guest is required–by Confucian protocol–to refuse any gift or kindness offered by the host anyway. Kikubari in effect removes the social requirement of the guest to refuse the drink, by not asking the question in the first place. The result is that most guests get a cup of tea–or a beer–whether they want it or not.

In contrast, on the extreme left side of the curve is America, a “do-it-yourself-or-at-least-ask-me-if-you-need help” culture (for lack of a better term). Along with our cultural cousins in Europe, we exalt the individual. One byproduct of this value is that we generally provide “individual choice” to friends and guests.

Kikubari is the antithesis of individual choice.

So this is much bigger than simply a fake English instructor being forced to drink sweet creamy instant coffee. It’s about the same foreigner getting a fork and knife because his Japanese waiter assumes he can’t use chopsticks; it’s about being spoken to in unintelligible broken English because the Japanese taxi driver can’t fathom the notion of a foreigner mastering his language; it’s having everything decided in advance—the restaurant, the meal, the beer—because the needs of the collective trump individual desires. It’s about getting a brand new pair of sneakers from a Japanese neighbor because you were caught red-handed wearing duct-taped shoes in public.

With three and a half decades of Japan experience under my belt I’ve learned to appreciate the intent and thoughtfulness behind kikubari, along with its value-added application in customer service. Even when it misses the mark.

And yet as much as I profess to love the kikubari tradition, it’s kind of like eating ice cream: wonderful in the right doses, but too much can make you sick. Sometimes kikubari can be so overwhelming that I just want to scream, “Let me decide!”

Restaurant Interrogation, American Style

In a previous post I broke down the interrogation Americans endure whenever they order a meal in their neighborhood restaurant. The sheer number of questions asked is a testament to the power of culture: Booth or table? What to drink? Soup or salad? What kind of dressing? How to cook your steak? What choice of vegetable? French fries, baked potato or doubled-baked? Sour cream? Bacon bits? Butter? Cheese? Hot sauce on the side?

And this is just a smattering of the questions, clearly directed at choice-loving individualists who–damn the collective–expect that meal to be customized to their personal liking. 

Now try going to a restaurant in Japan and specifying your meal to this level of detail. At best you’ll get a bewildered look, and that’s if you speak decent Japanese.

Years ago I had the gall to request extra ketchup at a McDonald’s in Sagamihara Station. Well you’d think I asked the lady to lend me the keys to her car! This request caused her so much anguish. No one had taught her in hamburger school what to do when the foreigner asks for ketchup.

Well, the decision was too big for her to make on her own so she called a conference in the back with the hamburger flippers. I can only imagine what they said: “The foreigner wants more ketchup, what do we do? Doesn’t he know that we anticipated his needs and already put the proper amount of ketchup on his patty? And even if we give him extra ketchup we have no approved containers to put it in!”

Whatever they discussed, after several minutes of intense deliberations the lady returned with a tiny plastic tray with just enough ketchup for a single french-fry swipe. So just to be difficult, I said, “One more please.”

Bridging the Kikubari Gap

The best way to build this bridge is to come at it from both sides of the cultural divide.

For non-Japanese on the receiving end of unwanted kikubari, my advice is recognize it for what it is, and appreciate the thoughtfulness behind the gesture. And if by chance the unwanted kikubari is coming from a Japanese friend, then you have some leeway in working around the gap, for example, indirectly educating your friend on how you prefer having choices.

For Japanese hosts dealing with non-Japanese, it’s a good idea to study up on your foreign guests so you truly understand what they want. Also consider the idea that offering choice is itself a useful cross-cultural kikubari technique: you anticipate that your foreign guests want choice and give them options. (They might surprise you and request green tea.)

Japanese should also acknowledge the reality that a certain percentage of foreigners seek out authentic Japanese experiences that come with or without kikubari; that the more adventurous foreigners would prefer to fumble their way through dinner using chopsticks; practice their imperfect Japanese with taxi drivers; drink green tea; and eat sushi, natto and rice crackers. But you’ll never know unless you ask.

And finally, Japanese can avoid disappointment by not expecting kikubari from foreign hosts. For better or for worse, kikubari is not how most Westerners roll. Japanese should consider this an opportunity to step out of their kikubari world and embrace individual choice.

The dark side of kikubari notwithstanding, our world clearly needs more kikubari not less. We need more observation, more consideration of others’ needs, more conscious acts of kindness. In my book, the benefits of kikubari far outweigh its dark side. And if that means occasionally drinking sweet creamy instant coffee, then I’m happy to do my part.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

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

Japan’s Polite Construction Workers

Here’s another “slice of life” video clip shot in Japan. Walking down the mountain from my in-laws home into the town of Atami, we encountered some polite and respectful construction workers. Noteworthy points:

  • They all bowed their heads and greeted us with “ohayo gozaimasu” (Good morning!)
  • They expressed concern for our safety (“Watch where you’re walking and be careful!”)
  • They warned us when cars approached from the rear
  • They even had a matt placed on the road to designate the entrance to the construction area!

All that and some nice shots looking down into Atami City.

Check out the clip:

The Coolest Little Coffee Shop in Japan

In the town of Kannami at the foot of Mount Fuji in Shizuoka Japan (right across the street from Izunitta train station on the Izu-Hakona railway) is a cool little coffee shop called Irodori. Rather than paint a picture with words, thought a video tour would work best. The coffee was delicious, the tiramisu to die for, but the Japanese decor pulled it all together. Check it out as well as the pictures below:

A rare shot of Mount Fuji on a clear day from the town of Kannami in Shizuoka Japan.

The entrance to Irodori, basically an old, traditional Japanese house converted to a coffee shop. Interestingly, kids aren’t allowed in, but I understand why: kids and paper shoji doors are a baaaaad combination!

You have to remove your shoes before entering Irodori Cafe, consistent with the idea of going into someone’s home. Note that this is not typical of your run-of-the-mill Japanese coffee shop (pun intended), a nice touch that just adds more charm and warmth to the shop’s ambience.

You gotta love Japanese understated elegance, an aesthetic concept described in Japanese as shibui.

For more information in English on Irodori click here.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011