Much has been written on the subject of Japan. The world does not need another commentary on the fishbowl, largely envied, dissected and analysed. Time Magazine recently ran a cover story describing the gloomy outlook and the failure of its leadership with the startling headline – From Dynamo to Dinosaurs, summed up nicely with the followings:
“Japan once shared Asia’s dynamism and mission. But not anymore. Today, Japan is an island of inertia in an Asia in constant flux. Japan’s political leadership is paralyzed, its corporate elite befuddled, its people agonized about the future. While Asia lurches forward, Japan inches backward.”
I recommend instead, Mark Clifford’s inside article entitled: Crisis? What Crisis? I contend not to write the Samurai off just yet, for there are more to the greatness of a country than money could measure.
My short visit to Tokyo does not make me an expert on the country, but the footprints I left behind hundreds, if not thousands of shops does merit some unsolicited commentaries, at least on the subject of service.
Friends who have been to Japan always brag about the place like a conversion experience, an otaku (cool Japanese word for obsession) which I could never comprehend.
Until last week, when I finally crossed the chasm.
Tokyo made me a believer.
Japan, by nature is a sincere and humble society. Despite being the most advance nation on the surface of the earth, not once did we encounter any of the “we’re better than you” aura from the sales person to the uber cool guy on the street. Even though most of the time we have no idea what they’re talking about in their language, the tone and the body language were enough to make us feel that we are in good company.
I enjoyed the scenes each evening on the way back to the hotel, watching the same Japanese workers bowing profusely towards one another, thanking their partner for the hard day’s work. The bows undertook were no ordinary bow, from the initial 45 degrees to 90 degrees; you can count the animation once, twice, three times, four times and sometimes even more. Like a firm hand shake between two old friends, each wanting to hang on just a little longer. Watching them makes me think that if I have a boss like that, I would be happy to slave for him for the rest of my life.
Perhaps it is with this ingrained mindset of humility that makes the Japanese naturally good in the service industry. The willingness to lower oneself for another, to greet every customer wholeheartedly and the efficiency in delivering customers’ needs in a totally unmatched manner.
You can spend a few thousand dollars hiring consultant to up your company’s service level, or you can spend the same amount of money wandering around Tokyo to learn it from the masters, with change in your pocket plus shopping bags to carry home! Don’t be too puzzled when you get a full bow from the sales assistant at the door front of the store, after making even the tiniest purchase.
While you do not expect the same level of service over a Seven Eleven counter, even then, you will be hard pressed to walk out of any convenient store without hearing an upbeat Irashaimase or Krangei!
A favourite of ours’ is the visit to the pharmaceuticals, which was jam packed with cosmetics and other unbelievable range of innovative products. Instead of being intruded by enthusiastic sales person, they were replaced by palmed sized TV on the eye level of the shelves playing lively advertisement to sell you stuff. Just as you thought there is not much could be done to enhance the customer experience in a pharmacy; the reps buzzed up the atmosphere by humming welcoming chants one after another like a musical, while their hands are still busy packing the shelves.
During one of our visits, an elderly pharmacist declined to sell us pain killer that was perfectly legal for over the counter purchase, insisting for us to seek proper medical attention for my wife’s ear infection. In doing so, she not only helped us to pin point a specialist, but went the extra mile of booking an appointment for us. All those, through the help of the lady’s I-Phone translating every word to us for a good 15 minutes without resulting in any sales.
Realist may ask: what is the point, if good service does not ring the cash register?
What is often forgotten in a cut throat society, where everything is measured by cause and effect, is the human element of things. Communal assistance for each other has been rooted in the core of our survival since the beginning. Once upon a time, we used to share things, we used to help freely. No big deal about it.
The elderly pharmacist understood service. That it has nothing to do with being articluate or even anything to do with closing the sales, but the basic calling to fulfill the customers’ wishes.
You can coach your staff the ability to execute the precise speech at the exact moment to impress customers. But without the intrinsic desire to serve, people will see through it no matter how smooth. Service is an attitude, it is a set of value rooted in a person, and a belief system. One’s mindset has to be people centered; its not even a skill. How do you even attempt teach that?
The commentary on service wouldn’t be complete without the mention of the immigration experience at the end of our trip, when two custom officers stopped our airport shuttle for a routine passport check. What made it unforgettable, was instead of treating each of us as criminal (which we have grown accustomed to, since 911), the authorities bowed to all passengers as they stepped into the bus, apologised for the interruption, and courteously treated every passenger with due respect, just like we are their clients (rightfully so!). Upon completion, another 45 degrees bow. What a testimony, what a fitting measure of Greatness, much of Asia and the rest of the world can emulate. One that Time magazine conveniently overlooked.