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.