Customer experience lessons from Japan

9th Aug 2010

Lior Arussy discusses the disparity between the Japanese and Western customer experiences - and highlights the four things we can learn from Japan.

I recently spent a week in Japan working with a client and had an eye opening experience. Although I had visited Japan on a number of prior occasions, I had never done so through the eyes of a customer experience professional. While in Asia, I had the opportunity to experience once again so much of what I enjoy about Asia and particularly Japan, particularly the culture and hospitality. The notion that it truly is a privilege to be of service is but one aspect of Japanese culture that never ceases to amaze me.
During the course of this trip, I made certain to pay attention to aspects of the customer experience, that in the past I may have overlooked. What quickly became apparent was the disparity between the Japanese and Western customer experiences. There were so many differences and lessons, many of which can be applied to the manner in which western countries can improve upon their own customer experiences. Here they are.

1. Waiting is good

Although common wisdom would have you believe that every interaction should be designed to be quick and seamless, the Japanese see this as a hindrance to brand connection. After all, if the overall experience is brief, the time spent with the employee, product, service and brand will be as well. While shopping at the very unique and attractive Mikimoto store in Ginza, I ended up waiting nearly 10 minutes for my purchases to be individually wrapped.
However, far from the typical wrapping process, the one in this store entails a ceremony the likes of which I had never before seen. Although time was short, it was pleasantly surprising to see the degree to which the store’s employees were willing to go to make the POST-SALE experience meaningful and exceptional. I quickly understood that not all retail experiences need to be modeled after that of a fast food restaurant. Presentation does in fact matter. If there is value to add to the experience, customers will be willing to wait.

2. Small is big

The Japanese love small things. Much of our consumer technology has to do with the Japanese minimizing what was once large and providing customers with something small (think the original Walkman, cameras, etc.). They fundamentally believe that good things really do come in small packages. Sometimes, beauty and excellence is about value, not size. It’s high time for all of us to start thinking small while delivering great value.

3. Contradictions are harmonised

The Japanese culture is predicated on balance and harmony between opposing forces. A recent Harvard Business Review article discussed Asians’ ability to manage conflicting business agendas such as increasing customer value while simultaneously reducing costs. While many western companies claim that such an objective borders on the impossible, Asians see such seemingly conflicting objectives as complementing rather than contradicting each other. Establishing harmony between seemingly conflicting requests or objectives is another important lesson we can utilise in the design of our own customer experiences. Is it really possible to meet customer demands for customised solutions delivered in shorter periods of time? A harmonised approach may be exactly what is needed!

4. Old is valuable

In the Japanese tradition older people are appreciated and respected more than the young. Their wisdom and experience carry a great deal of value. Although today’s culture focuses on the new (and Japan is no exception – visit the Akihabara area of Tokyo for the world’s latest gadgets), the country nonetheless retains its appreciation and respect for the old (and elderly). Culturally and commercially organisations are designed to focus on new products, services and, of course, customers.
If you doubt this, look no further than your organisation’s compensation plans for the sales and marketing departments. These plans emphasise new sales and new leads. Alternately, departments that focus on the old or existing such as customer service are routinely subjected to cost cutting measures above and beyond that of departments that focus on the new. It is time to reevaluate our priorities and change budget allocations to reflect the importance of existing customers, products and services. It’s time to respect and value our loyal customers instead of abandoning them and chasing new ones.
Visiting Japan was a true wake-up call. The trip has me thinking differently about Japanese culture and about the culture back home. From the immense attention to detail, service orientation and respect for the old, the Japanese customer experience have some important lessons and challenges for our notion of what a great customer experience is and should be.


Lior Arussy is the founder and president of Strativity Group, a global customer experience research and consulting firm specialising in design, innovation and deployment of differentiating, profitable customer experiences. His books include Excellence Every Day: Make the Daily Choice and Passionate & Profitable: Why Customer Strategies Fail and 10 Steps To Do Them Right!

His latest book - Customer Experience Strategy: The Complete Guide From Innovation To Execution - will be released shortly.

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