Things I Love About Japan: Customer Service

An automatic fanning robot beaver cools me down on a hot day

In-store automatic fanning robot beaver: as you do (Photo by Fraser Tooth)

Today I want to share with you some of my experiences of customer service, Japanese style. This is possibly the most famous of all Japanese traits. Anyone who has visited Japan comes back with stories of how they were treated like royalty. I guess in the UK we’re so used to be treated as an annoyance by shops, restaurants, doctors, hotels… in fact any business run by people. Anywho, here’s a few examples of why I love Japanese customer service.

One time in Japan I went to a museum with a friend. I had arrived early so had bought some canned coffee from the nearby vending machine. He arrived, I finished off my coffee and we walked in.

I couldn’t see a bin, so I asked the receptionist if there was one inside, holding up my empty can to demonstrate that I hadn’t just confused the Japanese word for ‘exhibition on ancient Egypt’. Without blinking she replied, “I’ll take care of that” and promptly took the can from me and placed it under the desk.

I’m pretty sure that there actually weren’t any bins in the museum, which means that she had to later go and find a bin outside to put it in, or take it home with her. I am also sure that if that were the UK I would have just been told, “There’s no bins here, because food and drink aren’t allowed. Please dispose of that outside.” Actually, ‘please’ might be a bit hopeful.

And it’s not just in going-the-extra-mile that Japanese customer service shines. It’s the standard stuff that makes you smile. Like at Starbucks when they echo your order throughout the entire staff. Admittedly this might be a ploy just to make you order the most complicated (and hence expensive) drink, but it really is quite fun to order, “White Chocolate Mocha Frappucino” and listen to it being repeated by a chirpy chorus of baristas and waitresses.

But if you really want to see customer service in action, then you need to go to a Japanese convenience store. I will wax lyrical on these in more detail some other time. But they deserve an extra spot of recognition here for the customer service they provide.

It begins when you enter the store and are greeted by a chorus of, “Irashaimase!” This is essentially an insanely polite way of saying, “You are here.” And it is shouted extra-loud. I assume both to display the staff’s appreciation of you entering their store, and to knock any final sleep you had out of your eyes. As with the Starbucks order, this greeting reverberates through the staff, who are somehow always dotted throughout the entire store. You know that thing Meerkats do when one stands to attention and the rest follow suit? It’s like that: heads appear over the top of shelves and from behind doors to smile in your direction and reassure you that you are indeed in a Japanese convenience store.

Then there’s the speed with which the staff will get from their position re-stocking the canned coffee (God bless them!) in the far corner of the shop to the checkout.  Even if there’s already a manned checkout, staff will perform parkour to ensure that they reach the second till before you have time to create anything resembling a queue. And then–and this never fails to make me smile–they tell you with a look of utter seriousness, “Terribly sorry for keeping you waiting so long.”

And even if you don’t buy anything–if you just wander around the store and then walk out again–you will be serenaded as you exit with a cheerful, “Than you for visiting. Please come again!” Which of course you will, because convenience stores in Japan are amazing!

I could go on. But instead I’ll had that task over to you. Do you have any examples of great customer service? You don’t have to stick to Japan. In fact, they don’t even have to be positive examples. This can be like a communal counseling session. Remember, sharing is caring!

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9 thoughts on “Things I Love About Japan: Customer Service

  1. Duncan Lyons

    I found that the US had amazing customer service. Not quite parkour levels but the genuine feeling of people wanting to help out was astonishing! Some cynics will state that this is for people in low wage jobs to make sure they keep their jobs (of which I’m sure there is an element of truth) but if they were faking, they were the best actors I’ve ever seen.

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    1. levibooth Post author

      Yeah, I found that when I visited. I agree that there probably is an element of wanting to keep jobs and/or get good tips, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I’m sure that chefs work hard to make nice tasting food, whether they feel inspired to or not, so that they keep their jobs. In the same way, if your job is to make people feel welcome, have a nice time, etc. then I think it’s good for people to do that.

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  2. Rossi

    I remember in Japan finding a sign on a broken fence which read (in broken English) “I am sorry I will cause you inconvenience” which sounded more like an overly polite threat…

    Also I couldn’t get out of the post-office for quite some time once because the lovely lady behind the counter was trying to inform me that it would be cheaper if I posted my package and letter separately and my language was insufficient to inform her that no it wouldn’t because I had about a dozen letters in there (daijoubu can only convey so much). She seemed quite upset I wouldn’t let her save me money.

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  3. Ash

    On the other hand, I can remember moving to London and being completely shocked at how often I would be in a shop/restaurant/any-place-I-might-expect-to-be-served-by-someone-who-was-being-paid-to-serve-me and got completely ignored. I think if I had texted in my presence I would have been served quicker. Obviously, I now don’t notice it.

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    1. levibooth Post author

      My first experience of reverse-culture-shock was along those lines. Went to a Burger King for breakfast (I was hungry at a train station: don’t judge me!) and when I inquired as to whether I could have some milk for my coffee I was informed, “Over there,” with a shrug to the right. It’s not even as if the place was busy – I was the only person in a 40 metre radius – so why he couldn’t have at least taken the time to properly point is beyond me.

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  4. JP

    Just take another thought and think a bit about who is paying the price that the customer is treated as god in Japan. Beneath the nice surface of supreme customer service people are suffering from the immense pressure as they have to perform and fulfill what is expected from them. Every nice extra service is payed by time and energy not spent with the family or for recreation. Many Japanese break down under this immense pressure to perform on this high level, there are many who are not able to give themselves as it is required and the question is where will they end up? The friendliness and kindness and supreme service here in Jspan has a price and people pay with their health and lives.

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    1. levibooth Post author

      Hey JP, that is a good point. In fact you’ve kinda pre-empted a future post I was planning on writing.

      I agree with you… to a point.

      I think the difficulty is that, as far as I can tell, there is no clear ‘normal’ level of customer service for us to use as a measuring point. In the UK it sometimes feels as if customers are seen as a nuisance; as Duncan said, in the US you’re treated as a best friend; in Japan you’re like royalty.

      People feeling under pressure to meet impossibly high levels of service is clearly not a good thing. But is that pressure necessary in order to provide quality customer service? As much as I might badmouth the UK in this regard, I have been to cafes, etc where people have been amazingly friendly and kind. I don’t think that means they are also under unbearable pressure.

      In other words, isn’t it possible to retain an attitude of providing great hospitality, whilst removing the pressure to perform?

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  5. Pingback: Things I Don’t Love About Japan: The Crazy Work Ethic | Reversed Thunder

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