Warmhearted hospitality plus unforgiving customers equals the world’s highest service standards.
Japan has become world-famous for its incredibly polished customer service, which isn’t something you’ll find only at premium-priced hotels and leisure resorts. Just about any shop or restaurant you go to in Japan, right down to convenience stores and fast food joints, will be staffed by courteous clerks and servers.
To explain this phenomenon, sociologists often point to the importance of respect and humility that are so deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. In our increasingly cynical world, it’s refreshing to see the concept of “you should treat the people who support your livelihood with polite kindness” be treated as such an obvious truth, but it turns out there’s also a less warm and fuzzy reason for Japan’s stellar service standards.
American Express International recently conducted a survey, collecting responses from 1,000 people each in Canada, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Singapore, the U.K., and the U.S. regarding their customer service expectations. Specifically, researchers asked the participants how many times they’d have to experience poor customer service from a company before taking their future business elsewhere, which produced some startling data in the strictest category.
See if you can spot the outlier:
I take my business elsewhere after one bad service experience.
● Canada: 32 percent
● Hong Kong: 23 percent
● India: 31 percent
● Italy: 32 percent
● Japan: 56 percent
● Mexico: 30 percent
● Singapore: 33 percent
● U.K.: 37 percent
● U.S.: 32 percent
Despite significant cultural differences, the strictest customers made up around 30 percent of most nations’ totals (with Hong Kong being slightly more forgiving and the U.K. a bit more demanding). In Japan, though, the majority, 56 percent, of the respondents said that after one case of bad customer service, they’ll simply spend their money somewhere else from then on.
Taken from the perspective of a business owner, a single service screw up means you can probably kiss that customer goodbye permanently, so employee training and work process management has to make service a priority if the business is going to have any chance of succeeding. Business owners can’t count on their patrons shrugging their shoulders and coming back again after even one brusque interaction with a frontline worker. In a way, it’s a quintessentially Japanese way of dealing with the problem, keeping with the society’s distaste for direct confrontation.
▼ It’s the economic equivalent of going on a date with someone and then saying “Let’s just be friends.”
In regards to the survey, Shunichi Nozaki, a researcher with Rikkyo University’s graduate school of business design, commented that Japanese consumers are much more likely to write off a business entirely than to complain about bad service. The stringent standards of customers in Japan even creates a sort of self-perpetuating cycle. Businesses know they have to deliver on service, which raises the bar for entire industries, and that high level of service makes Japanese consumers’ expectations all the higher. The result is that bad service stops being something people are resigned to, and becomes a startling blemish on the experience.
This can eventually even sink into the psyches of ex-pats in Japan. About half a year ago, my wife and I went out to dinner at a moderately priced restaurant in Yokohama. The waiter ignored us, and the owner/chef become blusteringly angry when we asked a simple question about the menu. We haven’t been back since, and we probably never will be, since there’s a nearly limitless number of alternatives that do treat their customers well.