What can we learn from Japanese customer service? And how can we benefit from it?

An interview by Ricky McKenna with Gerrard McKenna on February 3, 2021:

“Germany is a beautiful country. But whatever you do, don’t get off the bus – then you would enter the service desert!”

This quote comes from the Japanese author and business consultant Minoru Tominaga from his book “The Customer-Unfriendly Society: Success Strategies for Service Providers,” published in 1996.

Although the book is now 25 years old, and Germany has made positive changes in many service sectors, the philosophy and practice of Japanese customer service compared to Germany’s can still be vastly different even in today’s time.

That’s a good reason for me to have a discussion on the topic of customer service and the buying experience with my brother, Gerrard McKenna, a long-time top manager in the pharmaceutical industry and an excellent connoisseur of the Asian continent.

How can we explain the high value placed on customer service in Japanese society, while in German companies, it is often seen as an undesirable cost factor?

Japan has a millennia-old culture and a value system that prioritises harmony and the well-being of society. It is expected that the behavior of each individual serves the common good, and thus, virtues such as patience, politeness, respect, and collaboration are demonstrated and instilled in Japanese children from kindergarten and school.

This also includes giving one’s best in every situation in life, and it is logical that in the field of customer service, only “the best” is given and expected.

When you travel to Japan for the first time, one of the most impressive experiences is the way you are treated as a guest and customer. It often starts on the airplane, where the stewards and stewardesses make you feel like a truly welcomed guest. And the experience continues when you board a train, take a taxi, arrive at a hotel, or shop in a store.

What sets apart the positive buying experience in Germany compared to Japan?

We often talk about the customer being “king.” In Japan, the customer is truly seen as a king, or at the very least, a warmly welcomed guest to whom a positive experience must be provided.

The value of “respect” shapes the behavior of the salesperson. Customers are greeted with friendliness, the salesperson bows, and they inquire about the customer’s needs.

An impressive experience that reflects these values is a daily ritual in leading department stores: When the doors open in the morning for customers, the salespeople line up and bow to the customers streaming into the store. It’s an unimaginable gesture in our regions, but in Japan, it expresses the appreciation for the customer.

Another example is the journey on the legendary Shinkansen or Bullet Train. When the conductor enters the carriage to check the tickets, they bow deeply to all the passengers as a greeting. Only then does the ticket inspection begin, often accompanied by the distribution of moist towels to make the travel experience more pleasant.

And when you pay with a card in a restaurant, store, or elsewhere, the card is respectfully accepted and handled with both hands, as if the customer’s soul is within it. And equally respectfully, it is returned to the customer with both hands.

Lastly, when you leave a store after a successful purchase, it can happen that you are bid farewell with a bow at the door of the shop, and often only then are you expected to carry the purchased goods yourself.

The respect given to the customer is reciprocated by the customer’s acknowledgment of the service provided. Long-term customer loyalty is the result.

These behaviors reflect the values I mentioned earlier. They are expected in all situations in life. And so, the same etiquette is found in the B2B setting as well.

It is logical that customers feel highly valued in these situations.

It is also logical that the so-called “normative power of the factual” leads to harsh punishment when one fails to meet these expectations.

The relevance of customer service is understood by most companies in Germany.

However, the potential of outstanding customer service is far from being fully utilised, as can be seen in online reviews about endless waiting loops, wrong and incompetent answers, and so on.

What importance does digital service have compared to human salespeople?

The crucial factor is to show appreciation.

Services and information can also be provided digitally but need to be tailored to the customer.

The service offering must be tailored to the customer’s needs, and that usually means there is always a person behind the scenes who manages the relationship and can intervene personally.

Japanese people are generally considered to be digitally savvy.

Customers must be given the opportunity to access a real person in order to provide them with full appreciation.

Which elements of outstanding customer service could Germany easily adopt from Japan?

Customer service and service in general are a mindset shaped by values and beliefs.

In Japan, the contribution of each individual to society is valued, and every Japanese person takes pride in the contribution they make.

Furthermore, Japanese people strive to do what they do perfectly. Perfection, excellent work, is appreciated, expected, and thereby earns respect.

This also applies to services.

Providing services excellently is appreciated and respected, which leads to doing it with pride.

Anything done with pride is done well.

There is an expectation or a claim to recognise the customer’s desires and then provide them with a true experience through fulfillment. A salesperson is expected to primarily serve the customer. The resulting revenue is not the primary goal of their actions but a consequence.

Metaphorically, a salesperson must have the right internal attitude or intrinsic motivation to serve others and define success by that and to be successful. In simpler terms, one must enjoy helping others find happiness.

The salesperson can aid themselves by recognising the customer as a guest who must be sent home satisfied and happy.

It is also helpful to imagine that you only have one chance to impress the customer.

Another aspect is the sustainability of actions. Japanese people generally have a long-term orientation. Thus, the focus is not solely on short-term profit but on acting in the best interest of a long-term customer relationship.

We know this concept as customer lifetime value.

This attitude is not as widespread in societies with a short-term and more individualistic focus compared to long-term thinking and the common good. Therefore, when selecting sales staff, it is important to consciously consider the existence of this intrinsic motivation.

Evaluation and incentive systems that prioritise customer satisfaction encourage corresponding behavior but do not replace the impact and positive energy that a genuine “host” radiates.

Meeting customer expectations versus exceeding customer expectations.

In Japan, there is a commitment to surpassing customer expectations.

This leads to a true service culture and continuous service improvement.

My dear brother, thank you very much for the highly interesting conversation with you.


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