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Europe could do with a dose of Japanese customer service
Pernille Rudlin
Apr 07, 2010 06:07 PM

I have to admit that I always suffer from reverse culture shock when I return to the UK after business trips to Japan. Arriving at Heathrow Airport I find my shoulders hunching up, ready to face the fact the inevitable headaches and the fact that at best I may get some cheery but incompetent service - and at worst, downright hostility - from the people delivering my “transportation experience”.

I know from the training seminars I do for Japanese expatriates who are working in Europe that they too put “bad customer service” near the top of the list of things they find most challenging about living here. In Japan you become used to a consistently high level of competence in customer service, delivered politely and gently, with immediate and unreserved apology should things go wrong. Most British people, even if they have never visited Japan, will agree that customer service standards are poor in the UK. Other Europeans, on hearing our criticisms, will usually add, “Try my country – it’s even worse!” European service is uneven in quality, often delivered with a bad attitude and when things go wrong, you get excuses rather than a straightforward apology.

The question Japanese expatriates ask - and the question I often ask myself, is - “why?” Why is customer service so bad in Europe, and if most people agree it is not satisfactory, why isn’t anything done about it?

I have been doing some research on the differences in Japanese and British corporate cultures recently, and I’ve realised that the key features I have identified can also be used to explain the different customer service outcomes. For example the corporate mission of British and Japanese companies and their historical roots has led to more “stakeholder” companies in Japan compared to more “shareholder” type of companies in the UK. This in turn has had an impact on the employees’ sense of belonging to a corporate group and collective responsibility.

Some of the more traditional - some might say “outdated” - aspects of Japanese companies also impact customer service. These would include seniority based promotion, with its roots in Confucian acceptance of unequal power in society and the obligations that go with different ranks, alongside respect for elders and higher ranked people. And although status is unequal, Japanese companies do not have a huge differential between the pay of the senior executives compared to the junior ranks, unlike British service companies where the junior person is notoriously badly paid and chief executives earn millions of pounds.

Finally, even in service sector companies in Japan there is the gembashugi factor or a focus on the actual place where the work is done. Senior managers should have worked their way up the organisation and be prepared to go out onto the shopfloor. There is even a kind of monozukuri or craftsmanship - pride in the physical aspects of delivering service well.
Perhaps, if the key elements in Japanese service excellence can be identified and made explicit, customer service can be Japan’s next big export industry?

This article originally appeared in the November 30th 2009 edition of the Nikkei Weekly

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