The Japanese commitment to customer service is legendary, but it has a dark side as well. We Westerners are usually taken aback when we first encounter it, but it is something that most Japanese have simply grown to accept.
Like so much of Japanese life, customer service revolves around protocol. To a great extent, the quality of customer service is measured not by how well the needs of the customer are met, but by how strictly protocol is observed.
Let me give you an example from my early days in Japan.
I had traveled 40 minutes on a crowed train and then sloshed 15 minutes on foot though driving rain to call on a potential client. I arrived at reception barely on time, but wet and annoyed. I used my handkerchief to dry the parts of me that seemed strategically important, and approached the receptionist. She very politely informed that my client had left for the day.
“What? Really?” I stammered. “You mean he won’t be back?”
The frustration in my voice was more obvious than I thought, and the receptionist immediately switched into a more formal mode of speech. And here is where things take a turn towards the dark side.
For those unfamiliar with the language, Japanese has multiple levels of politeness and complex rules for determining which speech patterns are appropriate based on the situation and the person you are addressing. We don’t need to get into the details here, and to be perfectly honest, I still struggle with many of the honorific and humble forms.
The important point to understand is that as Japanese speech becomes more polite, the sentences become significantly longer. To compensate for the additional length, many in customer service, this receptionist included, begin speaking faster.
This, of course, made it much harder for me to understand her, which increased my level of frustration, which in turn made her speak more formally and more quickly.
Our vicious cycle had begun.
I stood there frustrated and dripping on the reception desk. The receptionist clearly saw that I could not understand the more formal speech patterns, but dropping down to less formal speech would violate protocol, and violating protocol is bad customer service.
No. There was only one way out of this. I took a deep breath, smiled and in the most polite Japanese that protocol allowed asked “I’m sorry. Sometimes I have trouble understanding Japanese. Did you say he had left for the afternoon or that he would be back later this afternoon?”
She met me halfway and dropped to the simplest speech patterns that protocol allowed and explained that he was called away suddenly on personal business so she could not be sure if he would return.
“Thank you so much for your help. I’ll try to call him on his mobile.”
“It’s my pleasure.” she smiled “I’m terribly sorry he wasn’t available, and that you had to come all this way in such horrible weather. Thank you for visiting us today.”
Harmony has been restored.
To be clear, I was completely in the wrong here. For a receptionist to speak anything but the most polite Japanese when faced with an upset visitor is a gross volition of protocol, and by definition that is bad customer service. Even when the protocol is the very reason the visitor was upset.
This prioritization of form over function is the heart of the dark side of Japanese customer service.
The Dark Side Doesn’t Always Win
Of course, not all customer service in Japan is like this.
Overall, Japanese employees have a level of pride in their work that is exceptionally rare elsewhere. In many cases the protocol is a thin veneer on top of genuine warmth and concern for the customers’ needs. In fact, employees at small companies and proprietors of family-owned businesses often drop the customer-service protocol after the initial greetings and start talking with you like an old friend.
A sincere and heartfelt and gratitude towards the customer often underlies the formality of the Japanese customer-service protocol. Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, the larger an organization becomes, the more this genuine concern for the customer disappears. Customer service becomes hollow, with only the shell of protocol remaining.
A stunning example of this hollowed-out customer service occurred last year when Mitsubishi UFJ Bank (MUFG) announced they would no longer support customers using Windows XP for online banking.
In terms of protocol, MUFG provided amazing customer service. They called each and every one of their tens of millions of online banking customers to inform them of the change. These were not automated robocalls. The calls were made by well-informed, very polite representatives who encouraged customers to ask questions and tried their best to answer them.
I had several chances to chat with these people. I had four accounts with MUFG, and received four separate phone calls.
Since online banking is one of the only reasons I still run Windows, my first question was whether they planned on supporting MacOS, iOS, Android or one of the other devices I own.
“I’m terribly sorry” she explained. “We can only guarantee compatibility with Windows 7 or later and IE8 or later.”
“I understand. So does that mean that customers using XP won’t be able to use online banking at all, or simply that there may be some problems?”
“We can’t guarantee how the system will work with XP clients after January 1st, we can only guarantee support for Windows 7 or later.”
Over the years, I’ve learned to hide any trace of irritation in my voice, and so avoid the vicious cycle of escalating politeness and frustration. “Thank you for letting me know. Can you tell me how to unsubscribe from online banking and also how to cancel my account, in case I decide to do so.”
True to protocol, she did not question my decision and provided the URL for canceling online, and sent me the forms I needed to close my account. I didn’t really want to change banks, and since she had not explicitly said that XP would not work, I decided to take my chances.
That turned out to be a very bad decision.
At the beginning of the year, I was unable to login. The error message explained that XP was no longer supported. Furthermore, canceling the $40/month service was now quite difficult. I could not access the online cancelation form without logging in, and I could not use a friend’s computer because I could not login to authorize a new device.
Canceling the service took over two months and involved several phone calls, multiple paper forms mailed back and forth, the creation of a notarized document, and two separate trips to the branch office. All parties involved were exceeding polite throughout.
Again, by Japanese customer service protocol, I was in the wrong here. MUFG gave me plenty of notice about the change, and answered all of my questions. I chose not to act on that information. I have no right to complain, and I didn’t.
And I’m not complaining now.
I’m simply using this as an illustration of how completely detached Japanese customer service protocol can become from actual customer service.
The thing I find galling about this situation is that providing real customer service would have been the less expensive option for MUFG. Undoubtedly, updating their systems to support the Apple and mobile platforms their customers are using will be expensive, but MUFG will have to do it eventually.
However, MUFG would probably have paid less to upgrade their computer systems to meet their customers’ needs than they paid to call tens of millions of customers to politely explain how the customers must upgrade their computer systems to meet MUFG’s needs.
Favoring protocol over actual customer service will hurt these companies over the long term. Japanese consumers might not complain as long as protocol is observed, but they will take their business elsewhere when given the chance.
In the end I, and a lot of Japanese consumers, closed our accounts and moved to one of the new Internet-based banks. These banks are lighter on protocol, but seem quite focused on addressing customer needs.
Art credit: Star Wars woodblock print Arthur Parreira
YOU ARE A GOD!
I have learned more from you after reading only a handful of blog posts than I have from working at a Japanese company for 20 years.
FOR THE BENEFIT OF ALL MANKIND, KEEP WRITING THESE THINGS DOWN
Thank you so much. I’m glad you enjoy the articles, and I’ll keep them coming.
Having lived off and on for about two years in Japan, I feel that the level of obedience to company protocols also depends on the region of Japan.
When I worked retail in Toyko, I feel like I was losing my advantage to thinking on my feet as a foreigner and slowly conforming to the Japanese way of just following the herd and not asking any question. Similarly, when I’m on the receiving end of a service, I often get frustrated as the servers often are doing the “right thing” but their service almost felt too robotic and unhuman-like.
This was, however, different when I travelled to Sapporo, Osaka, Tochigi…just to name a few. In my limited encounters with the service industry there, I feel that people there follow the rules, while still being open to have a casual chitchat and give your the warm, human experience. But again, I never lived there long enough as I did in Tokyo, so I am only speaking from my experience as a tourist.
You make a good point. I think you see much more flexibility and actual friendliness outside of the big city. Maybe it’s a cultural difference. Maybe its just less crowded, so people working retail have the time to occasionally chit-chat and break out of protocol. I’ve definitely seen the same thing.
I wish I had read this article two years ago! I was pulling my hair off (figure of speech) dealing with bank staff.
Your reference to banking experiences is so relevant, as all of us have to deal with money frequently and sometimes in that moment of special need.
More so for foreigners who are used to fast D.I.Y internet banking outside Japan
I have learned … more D.I.Y leads to more effectiveness
I felt sad and regrettable with the understanding that Japanese went the extra mile to service their customer but the very method they INSISTED had become their own “Achilles Heel”
It’s an interesting contradiction, isn’t it? If you follow the protocol, the service is amazing. If you want to make exceptions, things go downhill fast.
Found this article when trying to do some research as to why Japanese customers aren’t as likely to use something like chat support when they have the option to either email or call. From what you have written, it seems like this might be to do with the level of protocol involved which would likely get lost in chat support. Thanks for the information and your personal experiences, really shows the difference to how support is provided in Japan compared to the rest of the world.
Thanks for reading. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
I too encountered similar in-human like/robotic kind of customer service with a leading Japanese Airlines, who rejected boarding of my son with a wrong information, on confronting through tweeter, received a call wherein the lady repeatedly said same sentence without any change and no value adding in each repetition. I said I will take up the matter with appropriate legal authorities including your ministry, but nothing yielded results. Will update all here about my victory, as they relied upon a outright wrong information which was available in Black & White.
Customer service often falls down when things like new situations are encountered. You’ll often find yourself in an unproductive loop. When possible, it’s best to extract yourself from the situation and take another run at it later.
I experienced my own little episode of bad Japanese customer service recently, so when I googled some keywords, I found this article. I’ve been living in Japan for over 10 years now, and I would say I have grown quite accustomed to the way Japan does things, even if it sometimes still irritates me.
My latest experience happened a few weeks ago when I visited a washoku chain restaurant called Yayoiken. I’ve been there many times before, but one evening there was this one really old guy serving customers. Right after I was finished with my meal, he came over and asked if he could remove my tray. I said yes, and he took it away, but it seemed like he was in some kind of hurry which was rather off putting.
Anyway, I was on my phone for about 5-10 minutes minding my own business when the old server came over again and basically asked me to leave. His exact words in Japanese were “sorry, we have a lot of customers here, so those who are done eating….” while using his arms to point towards the exit. No servers have ever talked to me like that, and the restaurant wasn’t even full that evening either, so I felt like the dude was just talking out of his ass. I was contemplating making a scene in front of him and everyone, or just leave.
I chose to do the latter, but I contacted the company’s customer support to complain about this the next day. I received a reply a few days later,\ apologizing in a very polite Japanese way for creating an unpleasant experience for me. As part of their company policy to “offer a service from the customer’s perspective”, they noted that they had informed their staff of this incident and would make efforts to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
I replied in kind, thanking them for their consideration and efforts, but every so politely added that a mere apology and internal memos to their staff would not make me want to come back there again, but that I would consider it if they could offer something more. When I received another reply a few days later, it was as I expected: there was nothing else they were going to offer me except for their previous apology and internal memo to their staff, and they apologized if that was unsatisfactory for me.
I finally replied back saying that I have been going there on a regular basis for over a year, and that I would have happily let this incident slide if they could have at least considered offering me a refund or a discount on a future visit, but that since they weren’t even prepared to do as little as that, their policy of “providing a service from the customer’s perspective” was meaningless to me and I would never go back there again.
I have had a similar experience in the past in the service industry in Japan where companies for some reason feel like all they owe an unhappy customer is a simple apology. Back in the West, I know these companies would have offered some form of financial compensation for the trouble. But in Japan, oh no.
Thanks for listening. I’m glad to hear you enjoy the site.
You bring up a good example in the difference in customer service expectations between the US and Japan. In the US, apologies are monetary and transactional. In Japan it’s more complex. A lot of Japanese hotels and certainly the airlines have adopted the “apology means freebees” idea, it’s not universal. I’ve found that when you want some kind of monetary consideration it’s best to state that when asking for an apology.
Otherwise you run the risk of asking for an apology, being offered that apology, and then refusing to accept it. Which by Japanese standards, is rude.
I suppose having the staff themselves apologize directly during your next visit would be ideal, but that’s a lot to ask for in any country.
Thanks for the insightful reply. I initially wanted to give them the chance to come up with that option themselves without me having to be too direct about I realize it doesn’t work. I think you’re right in that I should have asked for a compensation from the very beginning if that was what I really wanted.
I posted this article on LinkedIn today to see if it might generate some discussion amongst my contact network. I recently started working in the call center space in Japan coming from the United States and the precision with which you nailed the heart of the matter is spot-on.
As contact centers become more valuable for the information and data they generate, more meaningful discussions (as opposed to script-bound politeness death spirals) should be encouraged.
I look forward to spending more time on this site, thanks Tim!
Thanks for reading. I’m glad you found value in the article.