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This is my second podcast taking a look at marketing and pop culture trends in Japan. Find out why Japan is the king of customer service, and why the US may never catch up.

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  Ritz Carlton

Konnichiwa boys and girls. Think about a time recently when you received great customer service. Maybe a store clerk helped you find a size. Or a waiter or waitress gave you great recommendations and kept your coffee cup full. Or more likely, maybe an outsourced customer service rep managed NOT to hang up on you or transfer you 4 times while answering your billing question.

Now imagine a magical land where the phrase ‘The Customer is Always Right’ actually means something.

Well, from my short experience, that magical land is in Japan.

Our fairytale starts at the Ritz-Carlton in Osaka. Now before you break out your Homer Simpson voice and say ‘oohhhh … the Ritz-Carrllllton,’ let me tell you that the friend I was traveling with has 2 things going for him. Number one is some kind of platinum membership club card because he travels a lot for business, and number two is the gift of persuasion.

So when he came back from the front desk grinning ear-to-ear, I wasn’t surprised to hear that he somehow wrangled the $1,000 Japanese suite for $140 ea. per night. Just now I looked at the cost of the Red Roof Inn in Midtown, and the rooms start at $140 per night. I’ve been forced to pay twice that amount to attend out of state weddings, even heeding the dire warnings of the bride: ‘They’re holding a block of rooms for us! We get a discount! But you need to book ASAP!!!’ We were going to stay in a traditionally-styled, authentic Japanese room – well, except for the fact that there was a Ferrari dealership in the lobby.

Ferrari Ritz-Carlton

But I’m not telling this story because of the high level of service at the Ritz-Carlton. It was what you would expect. What shocked and impressed us so much, was that we received Ritz-Carlton level service in every facet of our trip, from taxi drivers to souvenir salespeople.

Let me run through some examples:

The Norm Peterson
• Let’s start with the entire staff at restaurants shouting ‘welcome’ in Japanese when you walk in the door. Everyone stops what they’re doing. And everyone yells out a greeting. Does that ever get old? Well, did Norm from Cheers ever tell the bar to shut up when they shouted his name upon entering? I don’t think so. I don’t know the literal translation of what they were saying, but it FELT like ‘Welcome to our establishment good looking American tourists, we are honored to have you here, are happy to serve you, and thank you in advance for your patronage.’ Oh, and the warm towels they bring you right away? Can we get those here as well?

Contrast to some typical scenarios in New York, where the first words exchanged are ‘Is your party all here and ready to be seated? Because if everyone’s not here you’re going to have to wait outside until they all get here. I don’t care if they just texted and are 2 blocks away, you all need to be here. Next!’

The Subway Sprinter
• Now in addition to every single person we asked at a train station for directions being incredibly clear and helpful, there’s the Subway Sprinter. At the very end of my trip, I took my last subway ride to Shinjuku station before getting on the bullet train to the airport. But I still had some money left on the transit card. So I darted in to the travel information office to see if I could redeem it. Now in most cities, my guess is that once you’ve bought it, you’re stuck with it. There’s not much of a market for used passes. but I figured I’d ask.

As it turns out, the woman was more than happy to refund my money. She started the process but came back and said she was very sorry, but there was a problem. She tried to explain that I must have used the pass incorrectly when leaving a station, and that there was another step. With the language barrier, we went back and forth trying to figure it out. I told her to do whatever she needed to do… deduct the maximum, whatever. It turned out was only $6 and, showing her by tapping on my watch, we were starting to get pressed for time, so if it was going to take too long, I’d just leave it.

But she said she could take care of it … gave me the ‘one moment’ sign… and walked past me back into the crowded station back toward the check in point. But what made my jaw drop, was that she start RUNNING through the crowd. Physically running. She was back in 30 seconds flat and handed me my money with a huge smile.

In New York? Not so much. I’ve had my sister visit, and we’re loaded down with my crying 2-year old nephew, a suitcase, an umbrella, a backpack, a baby bag, and a stroller, and try to get the person in the booth’s attention while we’re trying to get through the turnstyle and they’ll squawk some indecipherable directions ‘Swipe the card at the turnstyle, then open the buzzer door!’

One Moment Please
• Ask someone in Japan what this English phrase means, and they’ll probably loosely translate it to ‘You’ve stumped me… Don’t move. I’m going for backup.’ This happened to us several times. For example, we’d check into a hotel. We’d ask about the cost, they’d answer. We’d ask for a dinner recommendation. They’d think about it, pull out some lists, and give a suggestion. But then we’d ask for a lounge-type bar where locals hang out that might have a TV. You’d see their mind working. They’re thinking like crazy. But then it comes… ‘One moment please.’ And then they’d run to the back for more help. Same in a store or restaurant. Question 1, fine. Question 2, fine. But something not in their wheelhouse? You get the ‘One moment please,’ and then they sprint to find someone that might speak better English or can better answer your question.

Help with Japanese Menu

They never said ‘I don’t know.’ They never shrugged their shoulders and said ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying.’ And they never just pointed you in another direction and said ‘Go ask him.’

That’s a wrap
• Even the tourist traps have ultra service. At the end of a tour of a shrine, it brought you to this nice area with a few shops with things for sale. I decided I would buy this one type of item for several friends and family members, and there were many options to choose from. First, the girl behind the counter spent almost an hour helping me out, telling me the meaning of each piece, and giving recommendations. That was nice. Once I bought them, they spent another 15 minutes individually wrapping each item, sealing them with Japanese stickers, and labeling each one with my friend’s names so I wouldn’t mix them up. That was a bonus. Then, they threw an additional item at no cost. Again, unexpected. And to top it off, the girl then spent 10 minutes writing out a list of her favorite pubs in the area that we should visit.

Taxi Cab Confessions
• The cab drivers wore tuxedos, and their cabs were always immaculately clean. Let me repeat that. Some cab drivers wore cleanly pressed military-style uniforms. Some wore suits and ties. And some cab drivers wore TUXEDOS! The cab drivers in New York don’t even wear deodorant!


Cab drivers in Japan from Jim Hopkinson on Vimeo.

How can we compete?
• So you might wonder, can US companies compete with this level of customer service? If you were running a business, wouldn’t you love to have your customers come away with the same feelings that I experienced in Japan? I hate to say it, but I’m not sure it’s possible.

Sure, there are exceptions you hear of in every industry, such as high end hotels or Nordstrom in retail or Zappos.com online. But the reason I think it will be difficult is because in Japan, the entire culture is rooted in this way of life, not just individual store training programs.

There’s a CVS drugstore one block from my old apartment that I would go to quite often. Whenever I’d buy something, the person would give me back my change and I’d say Thank You. Then one day I thought to myself, wait a minute, shouldn’t they be thanking me? I just bought something. And from that day on, I always paid attention to see if they would say Thank You as they handed me my receipt. Different days, different hours, different employees. Barely ever a Thank You.

Putting on the Ritz
• So while the picture I’ve painted may appear that New York is soulless – it is not– and I’m sure there are amazing tales of hospitality from Alabama to Alaska, let me start and end with the Ritz. As I mentioned, we were only paying a little more than $100 to stay at le crème de le crème, and the service was flawless. But then we went down a notch in Tokyo and stayed at a smaller, out of the way hotel, also for about $100 a night. But guess what? The service was equally flawless. They jumped through hoops to accommodate us.

And finally, we went to a traditional Japanese guesthouse (Ryokan) for the same price. This was a lower end choice we got at the last minute. You guessed it. Flawless. They had our names on a sign welcoming us, gave out toys to the couple with small children checking in before us (check out the video below), and as we were finishing dinner, an older woman in a traditional Japanese dress came into our room (you can see her in the video). She introduced herself as the wife of the hotel owner, and bowed down and began profusely thanking us for choosing their hotel. I swear, it felt like she was almost ready to cry as she said thank you thank you thank you.


Japanese Hotel Owner Greets New Guests from Jim Hopkinson on Vimeo.

I thought to myself, geesh, we’re just one group giving you just $100 for one room, not $1,000,000 gift to save your hotel from bankruptcy.

But to her, there wasn’t a difference.

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Thanks for listening, and sayonara.

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