The Wonders of Japanese Customer Service

Japanese customer service is amazing. The biggest culture shock I get when I go back to the States is when I go into a store or restaurant and the staff there don’t even know that I exist. Or even worse, when they act like I’m destroying their lives by forcing them to do the unthinkable – their jobs!

It starts at the airport (especially if it’s San Francisco International), ends at the airport going home and is usually pretty consistent throughout the trip. I have to say, though, that people are a bit nicer in the South where I come from.

I know that people’s jobs suck. I know they’re not being appreciated for their real skills and talents. I know that it’s boring and often demeaning to wait on others. I remember what it’s like. But all I want is a little human being to human being respect.

Why the rant? A little story may help explain. One day when I first came to Japan I bought a 32 yen piece of chocolate at the convenience store. I only had a 10,000 yen bill to pay for it. The clerk was a hungover and slightly thuggish-looking college student. After he handed me back my 9,968 yen change (which he’d quickly counted in front of me before handing it over), he bowed and thanked me for visiting the store.

I was like: Did that just happen?

The Customer Is God

In Japan there’s a saying – the customer is God. When I used to work crap jobs in the US, we thought of it more as, ‘the customer is slime.’ Who cares if this jerk gives us a handful of his change or not? Some other jerk will soon come along. In Japan, the word for kyaku (customer or guest) has the honorific –sama added to the end. This is the same honorific used for royalty.

The reason for this is that they’re not just getting your handful of change today. They’re getting your grandkids’ handful of change. In other words, they know that their stellar service will make you a regular and their shop will become a family tradition. You’ll blab about them to everyone you know and that will bring them lots more handfuls of change.

But even beyond just the money, it’s about reputation. Japan has extremely high standards of service and it’s just built into the culture. I can only imagine how one respect slip-up could probably run a store out of business. People in Japan talk (and blog) a lot about service and word gets around (it’s called kuchikomi in Japanese – word of mouth).

Price Doesn’t Matter

Another thing that I’ve found in Japan is that the price is not a big factor (not usually). What I mean is that you’ll get great service even at a hole-in-the-wall ramen shop, although of course it’ll be better at an expensive place. They treat you well because they know that you could’ve just as easily gone somewhere else. American businesses don’t think that way.

I remember buying shoes at a mall in Arizona with my wife once. The lady at the counter was moving at about the speed of a drugged snail, lacing up shoes that somebody was buying or trying on or something. She could barely bring herself to mumble something resembling ‘be with you in a minute.’ My wife was about to resort to fisticuffs, but I reminded her that this was a crappy store in crappy mall selling cheap, crappy shoes. What did she expect? But that would’ve never happened in Japan, no matter how cheap and crappy the store or merchandise.

They Stick with You

One of the biggest differences is that in Japan, the first person you make contact with will stay with you until the end. If you need to call the bank but have no idea which extension is the right one and you ask the person that answers, that person will make it their personal responsibility to make sure that you’ve gotten whatever it is you need. It’s almost kind of annoying. Sometimes you want to tell them, ‘It’s okay to transfer me, thanks,’ but they won’t do it.

In the US, if you’re lucky enough to get a human being, it’s their job to get rid of you, not help you. They’ll transfer you fast and forget about you just as quickly. Some customer services reps have only one skill – they’re on the other side of the desk. The only difference between them and you is that they have a password and know a couple of menu prompts.

All of this makes living in Japan wonderful and makes going home hard. Then again, I’d hate to have a customer service job here. That’d be brutal, I’m sure.

Anybody had any experiences with customer service in Japan, either good, bad or just plain weird? Please share!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *