Digital Omotenashi

The highly successful behavioural psychology 'technology' behind the Japanese 'Omotenashi' Customer Service culture is just as applicable to the online world as it is in face to face customer service contexts.

This is because one of their core insights is that those anonymous little people we all call 'customers' are actually your 'guests' - and not just in hotel and restaurant hospitality venues. The online 'customer' is now to be  treated as an honoured guest in your 'online establishment' and accorded all the proactive needs-servicing, tolerance and heartfelt consideration that a guest in your own home would expect to receive.



Digital Omotenashi Search


In the online world these insights can be applied in the same way.

Not surprisingly therefore, there are already marketing consultancies which promote the idea of "Digital Omotenashi".

It is no coincidence that the first page of a website is called your HOME PAGE. You have effectively invited a customer (now your virtual guest) into your online home and from there on it is your duty to make them feel at home, understand their way around and know how to ask for your assistance if they need it. The emergence of online chat and Live Help applications illustrates this in one, albeit labour intensive way.

But there are more specific functional design elements that can be incorporated across several levels of the online service offering. Most focus on technology's ability to appear to anticipate user needs proactively, and that is certainly an important part of this overall area of expertise. But there are other elements that comprise a genuinely Digital Omotenashi experience.

Once you deconstruct the specific, underlying attitudes and behaviours behind Omotenashi customer service culture it is easy to see how they can be interpreted, applied and adapted consistently across ALL your customer-facing channels.

The thing is to start from a comprehensive and coherent model of how you see your relationship with your 'customers' and how, therefore you communicate with them that they are important to you and not just a source of revenue.

There is a well known saying in Japan. Ichi-go ichi-e  一期一会 "one time, one meeting" an idiom that describes their concept of treasuring meetings with people. The term is often translated as "one chance in a lifetime."
A spirit of applied Digital Omotenashi enables us to embed the same philosophy in our digital channels, no matter how many thousands of visitors to our online worlds.

Maximising Hospitality Industry Customer Experience with technology

A key insight from the Japanese "Omotenashi" customer service culture comes from their version of our "The Customer is King" idea. They use the word "O-kyaku" for "customer" which, in Japanese, also happens to mean "guest". From that stems the transformative idea that "customers" in all "business spaces", not just the hospitality industry, are actually guests and should be treated as such.

But it works the other way round as well - the idea that guests are also customers. This is something that some conservative hoteliers sometimes forget.

A stay in a hotel is an opportunity to enjoy many new experiences - culinary and otherwise - because a hotel should be more than just a place to put your head down. And guests are happy to pay for these experiences, especially if organising them is made attractive and effortless.

But some hotels operate as if, once pre-payment for the room has been received, their scope of influence to persuade their guests to eat and drink and use other fee-earning facilities in-house is minimal.

This is where technology can play an important role and state of the art in-room information tablets such as those from , based here in U.K., are delivering rich information about their inhouse FnB outlets, activities, other fee-earning facilities and much more functionality besides, that contributes to positive customer experiences.

But why a tablet, not a smartphone?

A tablet is the ideal size and form factor to deliver rich multimedia information experiences. A form factor, resolution and performance the hotel has control over. A smart phone is too small to do justice to the information and the in-room TV in a fixed position is too large and far away to browse with.

What about in-room printed directories?

While most hotels still provide printed directories, in-room information tablets offer far more functionality. They earn their keep by helping to integrate rich multimedia information into systems that cross-sell other services and experiences. And cross-selling doesn't have to mean 'hard-sell'. Rather, it is part of the customer service to inform the guests of their options and facilitate their booking.

Integrated Resorts lead the way

The casino/gaming "integrated resort" world has been first to recognise the commercial R.O.I. benefits of this technology because their business models require them to optimise and manage EVERY MOMENT of their guest/customer's stay.

But much of the rest of the hospitality management world is still fairly conservative and adoption/leveraging of these technologies is still only in its early days.

In the hospitality industry, it is no longer enough to merely play host to your guests. The industry is now challenged to provide for and manage every aspect of their guest's Customer Experience. Perhaps the industry needs renaming...

The Japanese call this approach to delivering an extraordinary customer experience, "Omotenashi".

Japan is a Customer Service Heaven For Introverts...
How is that, and why is understanding what they do helpful and important?

One of the surprising things I uncovered while researching the amazing customer service culture of Japan was that it is considered an 'introvert's heaven'.

It's important because introverts comprise about 15% of the population, though some say up to 30%. And they are just as deserving of a customer service culture that meets their needs as anybody else. Here is some background on the Most introverted countries and Japan gets a mention here, as follows:-

"What people say:  “But at some point it hit me: I’m an introvert and Japan is a country that rewards introverted behaviour. Suddenly I knew why I never felt very comfortable in the US, where extroverted behaviour is praised … I have often said that if I were going to design my own country, it would resemble Japan”.

Why the Japanese service culture excels

To understand why Japan is such a great place for introverts we firstly need to understand what customer service behaviours introverts appreciate and then understand how the Japanese customer service culture delivers those things so effortlessly.

What introverts don't want is relentless, intrusive 'customer service' interactions that require them to respond, engage and give bubbly 'feedback'. The kind of 'customer service' interactions that are really designed to positively stroke the giver, not the receiver. "Is everything fine with your meal?" is not something that is helpful to introverts. They don't particularly enjoy having to answer truthfully or otherwise....

It is in addressing this need that the Japanese customer service attitude of "KIKUBARI" is so effective. An inherent part of their "Omotenashi" service ethos, Kikubari is an attitude of proactive, anticipatory service. One that is characterised by doing things for the customer before they are forced to ask for it. But more importantly, it is a mindset that communicates non-verbally that no thanks are expected. Perfect when serving introverts.

The other Japanese national trait that works so well here is their mastery of non-verbal language; a fluency that stems from their habit of quiet, passive observation. It is nothing we couldn't learn to master here, but something that appears to be routine, natural and effortless there.

If you find the subject of "Omotenashi" Japanese customer service excellence interesting and would like to add an understanding to your professional credentials, why not join us on November 29th in a Milton Keynes location

What is the difference between 'Proactive Service" and the Japanese philosophy of 'Kikubari' ?
I recently received an invite to what looks like a very interesting webinar on PROACTIVE SERVICE. It's an important subject that lies back of the idea of Extra-Ordinary Customer Service and Experience.

It immediately got me thinking about the difference between this western 'proactive service' concept and the Japanese customer service philosophy of "KIKUBARI" - which has a similar meaning on the surface.

The world's gold standard Japanese Customer Service tradition has come to be branded as a philosophy called OMOTENASHI. In fact, this word is a catchall for a group of philosophies that includes, among others, this idea of KIKUBARI.

Being a Japanese word, it naturally has layers of deep meaning and clear linguistic roots. But from them we can understand the simple concept that captures its essence.

So what does KIKUBARI mean?

In Japanese language the word means "Ki + Kubari" literally means "Energy + Sharing around or distributing"

That can therefore be understood as taking on a task to save others from having to do it themselves. And thus, the concept of "anticipating other people's needs". This is how it is most frequently explained.

Now, both these ideas appear, on the surface, to be occupied with the idea of doing something before the customer asks for it. The effect being to:-

  • make it unnecessary for the customer/guest to express their needs/wants
  • communicate that their needs are foremost in your mind
  • removing the fear of an unwelcome response when asking for something

So what is the difference between 'Proactive Service' and 'KIKUBARI'?

I believe there is a small difference in motivation. From all the descriptions I have read of the KIKUBARI philosophy in practice, one idea comes across very frequently. In Japan it is something done "without any expectation of thanks". And more than that. Done in a way that silently communicates that no thanks are required. Bear in mind here that Japan is a NO TIPPING hospitality sector culture as compared with our service charge and customer service tipping culture here in the west.

Here is an enjoyable video clip of a spirited (and witty lady) in Japan explaining her take on 'OMOTENASHI'. Now I personally believe she's conflating kikubari and Omotenashi here, but nevertheless she gives a great example of Kikubari in the process. I've linked to the start of that part of the video, but do take a look at the whole video if your interest is piqued further. (If it doesn't start at this anecdote, fast forward to 2.45 seconds.)

Does this "no thanks required" proactive service go on in UK? Of course it does.

A year or so ago I had a wonderful customer service experience in my local ALDI that seems to capture this spirit. Packing my shopping in my usual hurry at checkout, I foolishly managed to smash a bottle of wine in the bag into which I had put it. Wine and glass pieces everywhere, leaking all over the floor and other items in the bag. The cashier immediately stopped to assist, called for assistance to get a replacement bottle of wine and while also mopping up, (I tried to help here...) told me I could also replace other items that had got wet in the process. Despite the fact it had been entirely my fault anyhow she said there would be no replacement charge for any of them.

I related this story to the manager a couple of visits later, by way of praise and thanks, and in doing so I said how I felt both very grateful and somewhat embarrassed by her kindness. He immediately showed concern that I might have felt in any way awkward to be on the receiving end of such service..... WOW!

That, I believe, is the spirit of KIKUBARI.

If you find this and the wider subject of the extraordinary Japanese Service culture interesting you might be interested to join my upcoming workshop at the end of November.

There's more to extraordinary Japanese Customer Experience than 'Omotenashi'

There is one extraordinary Customer Service culture in the world that stands head and shoulders above all the others. It doesn't belong to a single commercial corporation, but rather, operates at a national level across all industries and price points.

You'll find it in Japan

This level of service is such an integral part of their culture that they have a special word for it. OMOTENASHI

You'll come across this word more and more leading up to the Tokyo Olympics as companies associate themselves with the philosophy in their marketing literature. And not just companies in the hospitality business.

Here we have Lexus, a car manufacturer, talking about it.

The only barrier to better understanding the idea is that there appear to be multiple definitions of the Omotenashi word. From 'selfless hospitality' to 'anticipating needs'.

But there is more to this important subject these days than delivering great customer service. What is more important is the delivery of a broader extraordinary Customer Experience.

Customer Service is a cornerstone of that, but there are other important elements that go in to it.

  1. There is the service setting itself. How it looks, sounds and feels and the attention to detail that is needed to create and sustain it. The Japanese excel at that and have a special word for it. Kodawari - roughy translated as 'an obsession with detail'. 
  2. Then there is the attitude towards customers themselves. How are they viewed? Merely as a revenue source, or something more important? The Japanese have a special word for that, too. Okyakusama, best translated as "The guest is a god" 
  3. They also have a special cultural word for the idea of anticipating customer needs before being asked for something. That's called "Kikubari". And there are several other components to their customer service model.

What makes the Japanese example so interesting is that it provides us with a model to study, learn from, emulate and use as inspiration to raise our own customer service games. And with it, deliver our own extraordinary Customer Experiences.

Customer Service in Japan really is extraordinary! Ask anybody who has been there....

Unless you have been to Japan it is a bit difficult to understand how extraordinary the customer service is there. I can relate my positive experiences but I obviously have an agenda!


Instead, here in a 1 minute video mashup are three comments from non-Japanese about their experience and opinion of it. I think they sum it up perfectly.

The main question I am often asked is this. "Is extraordinary Japanese customer service something only the Japanese can deliver?"

I believe not. Rather, the thing that might separate them from us is their ability to deliver and sustain these service behaviours equally across all price points and industries. They train for it just as we in the west do. But they TAKE PLEASURE in serving. A quiet pleasure that is referred to broadly as OMOTENASHI.

Join us in my upcoming ½ day workshop in London to find out how and why they find that pleasure and what they do so consistently. Understand the model of their service and hospitality attitudes and behaviours. Anybody with a professional role in the world of customer service ought to be interested in learning about this model and how we can apply it to our U.K. context.

What kind of hotel sends a memo like this to all its guests?

While researching the extraordinary customer service culture in Japan that everybody raves about, I came across one particular example that stood out for its sheer obsession with guest-centric service attention.

An example, insignificant on the face of it, but revealing and interesting once you stop to think about the many trickle down implications.

It is a memo to room guests in the Palace Hotel, Tokyo - Japan. I've attached a copy. It reads as follows:-

"Dear Guests,

Due to the Emergency electric utility maintenance, we will have an interruption of internet access for approximately one minute from 4.00 a.m. on Thursday April 14th.

We apologize for this inconvenience, and highly appreciate for your king (sic) understanding.

Please do not hesitate to contact us if we may be of any assistance on this matter"

Is this memo excessive?

On the face of it, going to the trouble of informing every guest in your hotel that there will be a one minute internet connectivity outage in the middle of the night seems a tad excessive and unnecessary.

But then again, it is quite likely some international business people might be connecting with their colleagues in other time zones at 4.00am Tokyo time - which is GMT+9 - Do your own calculations of the time in Los Angeles, New York, London etc.

The planned outage might only be for a minute, but if you didn't know the cause and duration of the outage and were kicked off an online meeting you might be pretty irritated. You might panic, reboot your device, check your internet connection program for a fault, reload a VPN program. All to no avail.

Then you might call reception to try and find out what is going on from a person who might not know and might not have the language skills to understand your problem nor be able to explain to you the situation if they did. And so on.

But if you had "got the memo" and knew in advance, you could inform your colleagues, demonstrating that you are staying in a hotel with impeccable service and that you were in control of your global connectivity. A globe-trotting professional.

I spent years as a frequent international traveler as a Chief Information Officer serving the global connectivity/VPN etc. needs of a large collection of demanding executives across 11 countries and know how it feels.

Cross-Silo Management Culture

What additionally interested me about this memo was that it demonstrated that the I.T. systems manager decided that, despite the outage being so short, it would be appropriate to inform management of it to allow them to organise this memo. Which came from the Housekeeping department. To me, that demonstrates a commitment to customer service excellence working right across the usual silos you get in large organisations.


This is, in my opinion, a great example of an important element of the Japanese customer service culture called "KIKUBARI" - the art of proactively anticipating guest needs.

In this case, removing a source of potential anxiety by keeping you, their honoured guest, fully informed at all times. Even at 4.00am in the morning.

Here in U.K. ?

I'd be curious to know if a UK hotel I.T. manager would inform management similarly and would management write a memo for every room like this? I would like to think that some hotels would. If you are in the hotel industry, why not let me know?

In Japan they have extraordinary customer service competitions

The culture of extraordinary customer service is so pervasive that some Japanese companies have competitions for who can give the best customer service. All Nippon Airlines, ANA, one of Japan's airlines, has a customer service competition that focuses on the little interactions that can make life so pleasant.

It is all part of their 'Omotenashi' hospitality and service ethos that we'll be hearing more and more about as the Tokyo Olympics approaches.

What I find most interesting is how (supposedly) mundane some of the customer service interactions appear to be on the surface. And yet, if you stop to think, given the context of a busy cabin, the sometimes limited time between take off and landing, or between takeoff and first meal for example, each of these moments of personal care took a small decision to STOP whatever else they were dsoing and pay attention to the small personal needs of somebody.

We've all been in restaurants in which it is impossible to catch the server's eye as they walk past with deliberate tunnel vision. On an airplane, it's the same thing, only ten times more acute.

"Winners of ANA’s most recent competition were rewarded for engaging in a fun conversation with a passenger who said he loved airplanes; providing a magnifying glass to an elderly couple reading small text on a customs form; and other generous gestures."

There is so much scope for this in the world of face to face customer service interaction.

Singapore Airlines is, of course, the airline to beat in this respect, but across Asia, they all seem to do this so well.

So next time you are travelling to Japan, use a Japanese airline and you can start to experience their culture of guest hospitality even before you arrive.