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.
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 questionwas 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.
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.
Tim Romero is the Head of Google for Startups Japan. He is a Tokyo-based entrepreneur, podcaster, author and teacher who has started four companies and led Japan market entry for others since coming to Japan more than 25 years ago. Tim hosts the Disrupting Japan podcast, teaches corporate innovation and entrepreneurship at the NYU Shinagawa campus and is CTO of TEPCO's Business Innovation Task Force. Tim is deeply involved in Japan's startup community as an investor, founder and mentor.