Why Japanese Service is Ichiban

Even fish mongers treat you like a god!

A key reason why I enjoyed my recent vacation to Hokkaido so much was the customer experience. Let's face it. Japanese service quality is light years ahead of ours. Almost everybody I know who visited Japan raved about it. However, they do also have certain chinks in the armour as you would see later.

First, let's talk about what great service is. Delightful service goes beyond being polite and courteous. It looks at ensuring that every single touchpoint to a customer is taken care of. It emphasises being quick and responsive to customer's needs. It empowers staff to be flexible and to take quick remedial action in service failures. It pays close attention to the fine details and little nuances.

On most accounts, Japan has scored well in the service stakes.

The Japanese style of service quality comes very much from their culture and upbringing. From young, kids in Japan were taught religiously - at home or in school - to observe being respectful to their elders and to think of others before themselves. Most Japanese households do not have maids, and the main task of bringing up junior goes to the wives, who are usually homemakers. Without maids fussing over them, kids are taught to be independent and to pick up after themselves at an early age.

The philosophy of kaizen or continuous improvement means that every single opportunity for mistake, rework or error is rectified at the earliest instance. This same sensibility permeates every single aspect of Japanese society, commerce or industry. Their obsession with developing the perfect process is well known.

Delightful service encounters in Japan are fairly universal. You can get it not only in the most posh 7-star hotel, but also in the little family eateries tucked away in the allies. It doesn't matter if you are Japanese or a foreigner. In fact, the whole spirit of Japanese service is so strong that you don't even need to worry about knowing the language. Just gesticulate as much as you can and eventually, help will be on its way.

Unfortunately their strict adherence to policies, rules and processes leads to greater rigidity. It also makes them less able to cope with extraordinary circumstances.

As an example, our otherwise pleasant holiday experience was slightly tarred by long queues in Japan. This happened a few times - going into immigration, checking in at the Japan Airlines Counters from Itose Airport to Tokyo's Haneda, and again from Tokyo's Narita Airport to Singapore. Despite seeing long queues, staff at the counter (and there were a lot of them) merely smiled at us serenely, as if oblivious to our pain.

The wait is looooonggg.....

Somehow, the obsession with processes and systems leads to lower flexibility. The high degree of homogeneity and uniformity in Japan makes them less adept at out-of-the-box and creative thinking. Hence, exceptional requests or specially customised products and services are often met with a quizzical look.

How are your encounters with Japanese service and hospitality like? Are they mostly pleasant, mostly sour, or bittersweet?

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