ryokan omotenashi

The Growing Importance of Delivering Extraordinary Hospitality Experiences

The Growing Importance of Delivering Extraordinary Hospitality Experiences

In a world where luxury 5-star hotels often have similar elegant furnishings, upscale amenities, and refined dining options, what really sets one property apart from another is the quality of the guest experience. More and more, discerning travelers are looking for hotels that provide truly memorable and personalized service that exceeds expectations. This is where the ancient Japanese concept of “omotenashi” can serve as an inspiration and guide for modern hospitality brands aiming to deliver extraordinary experiences.

ryokan omotenashi

Omotenashi translates to “hospitality from the heart” and originally emerged in the Ryokan and Tea Ceremony culture of traditional Japan.

Unlike Western hospitality, which often relied on material comforts and refinements, omotenashi was entirely focused on anticipating guests’ needs, understanding their desires, and providing sincere, empathetic service.

The core principles of omotenashi are in tuning in deeply to the guest, eliminating their worries, and making them feel cared for, welcomed, and appreciated.


Real Luxury

In luxury 5-star hotels today, where state-of-the-art technology and facilities already cater to guests’ physical comfort, service staff must go further to nurture the emotional and psychological aspects of the stay. This requires empathy, active listening, observational skills, and making heartfelt human connections with guests. Small thoughts and gestures that show customers their individuality and preferences matter can help transform a standard luxury experience into an unforgettable one.

omotenashi western

Omotenashi Hospitality

For example, at hotels where omotenashi is a service philosophy, staff may notice a guest’s unique cufflinks at check-in and later leave a handwritten note complimenting their stylish taste. If staff overhear guests chatting about a special occasion, they may discreetly inform the kitchen to add a celebratory chocolate treat to their room. Or if early risers are observed heading to the gym each morning, staff can make sure to have a fresh pot of coffee already brewed and ready when those guests come down for breakfast.

These thoughtful, personalized touches go beyond formal service scripts. They require staff to observe cues, understand contexts, and use their emotional intelligence to craft unique experiences guest-by-guest. Omotenashi is not about superficial politeness or over-the-top pandering. It’s about cultivating genuine care and connections between staff and guests. Small, sincere gestures rooted in empathy make a big impression.

Executing thoughtful anticipatory service and experiential personalization consistently requires buy-in across an organization. Hotel leaders aiming to differentiate their hospitality brand should invest in hiring staff with innate warmth, intuition and care. Comprehensive training programs can then build on these natural talents by teaching trainee etiquette, deep listening skills, and ways to read verbal and non-verbal cues from guests. Leaders should empower frontline staff to creatively tailor touches to delight specific guests — without the need for top-down micromanaging.

thai omotenashi

With omotenashi principles guiding their efforts, luxury hotels can transform vanilla five-star stays into memorable journeys filled with pleasant surprises, meaningful moments, and heartfelt hospitality. While material comforts satisfice, emotional connections create lifelong loyalty. By tapping into the ancient wisdoms of omotenashi, modern hotels can craft guest experiences that feel genuinelypersonalized, thoughtful, and infused with humanity.

In today’s increasingly commoditized landscape of upscale accommodations, delivering stays that nurture both heart and mind is the new gold standard for standout service.


Real Hospitality

Real hospitality comes from the heart. In our fast-paced, high-tech world, a caring human touch means more than ever. Luxury hotels can have all the fancy furniture and amenities, but without personal service, every place starts to feel the same. To stand out, hotels need to take a page from old-school Japanese omotenashi.

It’s about seeing guests as people, not transactions. Little customized touches that show you get what makes them tick make all the difference. But you can’t fake caring – it’s gotta be real. Hotels need to hire staff who really get people and know how to pick up on the small clues. With the right kind-hearted folks, omotenashi training can take things to the next level.

Empowered staff will start noticing things and responding with cool personalized gestures. They’ll see every interaction as a chance to make a human connection. With the whole team living omotenashi, the hotel experience goes from just another stay to a one-of-a-kind journey.

In a crowded luxury space where the digs are all premium, standing out comes from creating emotional experiences. And in our disconnected world, it feeds our need for community. By bringing back good old-fashioned caring, hotels deliver happy guests and human connections. That glow of goodwill and those special memories – that’s today’s true luxury.

Japanese Waiter

More from the eloquent folks at ChatGPT


..is a Japanese term that refers to the concept of providing exceptional hospitality to guests, customers, or anyone else who interacts with a business or service. The practice of omotenashi is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, and its origins can be traced back to several cultural, historical, and social factors. Here are some factors that contribute to omotenashi:

Confucianism: Confucianism, an ancient Chinese philosophy that emphasizes social relationships and moral values, has had a significant influence on Japanese culture. One of the key concepts of Confucianism is the idea of respect for others, which has been incorporated into Japanese culture and is reflected in the practice of omotenashi.

Traditional Japanese culture:

Japan has a long tradition of hospitality that dates back to ancient times. The tea ceremony, for example, is a cultural practice that involves the art of making and serving tea, and it is known for its emphasis on etiquette, respect, and attention to detail.

Service industry: Japan’s service industry, which includes hotels, restaurants, and retail businesses, places a strong emphasis on customer service. The competition among businesses to provide the best possible service has led to the development of omotenashi as a way to stand out and attract customers.

Economic growth:

Japan’s rapid economic growth in the post-World War II era led to an increased focus on customer service as a way to differentiate businesses and compete in the global market.

How omotenashi differs from hospitality in other cultures:

Omotenashi is often described as a unique aspect of Japanese culture, and it differs from hospitality in other cultures in several ways. For example:

Attention to detail: Omotenashi places a strong emphasis on attention to detail, with a focus on anticipating the needs of guests and providing personalized service.

Politeness: Japanese hospitality is known for its politeness and respect, which are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.

Humility: Japanese hospitality is often characterized by a sense of humility and a willingness to put the needs of others before oneself.

Gestures: Omotenashi is often expressed through small gestures, such as bowing, giving gifts, and providing extra services, that are designed to make guests feel welcome and appreciated.

Overall, omotenashi reflects a deep-seated cultural value in Japan that emphasizes respect, attention to detail, and putting others first. It is a

Here are some specific examples of Japanese hospitality (omotenashi) in action:

Bowing: Japanese people are known for bowing as a sign of respect and gratitude. Bowing is not just a casual gesture, but it is a way of showing genuine appreciation and politeness. The angle and duration of the bow can vary depending on the situation and the level of respect.

Giving small gifts: It’s a common practice in Japan to give small gifts to guests, visitors, and customers as a token of appreciation. The gifts are often beautifully wrapped and carefully chosen to reflect the occasion and the recipient’s interests.

Anticipating needs: In Japan, hospitality is about anticipating the guest’s needs before they even have to ask. For example, in a hotel room, the staff may leave a glass of water by the bed, provide extra pillows or blankets, or even offer to draw a bath.

Going the extra mile: Japanese hospitality is about going above and beyond to make guests feel comfortable and cared for. For example, a hotel may offer complimentary drinks and snacks in the lobby, provide a shuttle service to local attractions, or even arrange for a personalized tour guide.

Apologizing: When things go wrong, Japanese people are quick to apologize and take responsibility. Whether it’s a delayed train or a mistake in a restaurant order, the staff will apologize sincerely and do their best to make things right.

These are just a few examples of the behaviors, gestures, and attitudes that exemplify Japanese hospitality.



What does CHATGPT think about Customer Service in Japan?

When it comes to customer service, Japan is often considered the gold standard. From the moment a customer enters a store or restaurant, they are greeted with a level of politeness, attention to detail, and hospitality that is unparalleled in many other parts of the world. This culture of exceptional customer service is deeply ingrained in Japanese society, and it is something that sets them apart from other nations. In this essay, I will explain why Japanese customer service is the best in the world.

Firstly, Japanese customer service is built on a foundation of respect and politeness. In Japan, there is a cultural tradition of putting the needs of others before one’s own, which is reflected in the way that customers are treated. Japanese store clerks and service staff are trained to greet customers with a polite bow and a friendly smile, and they are expected to be attentive and courteous at all times. This level of politeness is not just a show of good manners; it is a reflection of the deep respect that Japanese people have for their customers and for the service industry as a whole.

Another reason why Japanese customer service is so exceptional is that it is highly detail-oriented. From the way that products are displayed on shelves to the presentation of food in restaurants, everything is carefully thought out and designed to create a memorable experience for the customer. Japanese service staff are trained to notice the small details and to anticipate the needs of their customers, which means that they are often able to provide a level of service that is both efficient and personalized.

In addition to being polite and detail-oriented, Japanese customer service is also incredibly efficient. Japanese service staff are trained to work quickly and efficiently, without sacrificing the quality of their work. This means that customers can expect to receive their orders quickly and without any unnecessary delays. In fact, many Japanese stores and restaurants have developed unique systems for streamlining their service, such as automated ordering kiosks and conveyor belt sushi restaurants.

Finally, Japanese customer service is characterized by a strong sense of hospitality. In Japan, it is believed that customers are not just buying a product or a service; they are entering into a relationship with the business and its employees. This means that Japanese service staff are trained to go above and beyond to make their customers feel welcome and appreciated. From offering free samples to providing complimentary gift wrapping, Japanese service staff are always looking for ways to enhance the customer’s experience and to create a positive impression.

In conclusion, Japanese customer service is the best in the world because it is built on a foundation of respect, politeness, attention to detail, efficiency, and hospitality. Japanese service staff are trained to provide a level of service that is both efficient and personalized, and they are committed to making their customers feel welcome and appreciated. Whether you are visiting a store, a restaurant, or a hotel in Japan, you can expect to receive a level of service that is unmatched anywhere else in the world.

What Omotenashi feels like on the receiving end

There are many things one could write about regarding Japan's style of view on business, such as negotiations, loyal relationships or continuous improvement or 'kaizen', but today I want to focus on the politeness that is ubiquitous.

It contributes hugely to the Japanese to being world famous in their #customerservice. Entrepreneurs and managers everywhere should be keen to learn how they can adapt these small but powerful concepts to improve their own customer service experience.

Here is a quote from a great article about the experience in Japan from Bridget Brennan, Author of "Why she Buys".


"Make no mistake: Japan is a modern country with breathtaking technology built into everything from its bullet trains to its trash cans.  However, the country offers a great lesson in the fact that no matter how fast technology changes, there are certain things that don’t:  feeling appreciated, having a sensory experience and being on the receiving end of kindness and enthusiasm are all things that people want from a shopping experience" 


"Before I went to Japan for the first time, I was told by well-traveled friends to expect a level of customer service so polished and comprehensive that even the most basic transactions can take on a ceremonious air."

I am not sure I could sum it up better. But nevertheless I shall continue to endeavour to do just that!

Omotenashi culture PODCAST 

About a month ago I had the great pleasure of recording a podcast about #OMOTENASHI with a real expert on Japanese culture, my new friend and Japan-based LinkedIn connection Andrew Hankinson

After a couple of weeks editing, the final result is available for all to hear. 

Andrew has an excellent regular podcast on all things Japanese - culture, business related, miscellaneous insights and so on.

Andrew's Podcast

Andrew's a highly experienced long term resident of Japan, a fluent Japanese speaker who knows the culture better than I ever will, so the questions he led with were insightful, illuminating and challenging! He certainly made me think about my answers and I also learned a lot about his perspective on life in Japan. The result was very enjoyable for me and I hope him, too.

This was the first podcast I have ever done, and was challenging, not least because the video conferencing connection was a bit patchy from my end. But from his end everything came through clearly and with his excellent editing we had a great chat together about what #omotenashi actually is and how Japanese and westerners might experience it through different cultural lenses.

What was important for me was to distinguish between the Japanese Hospitality Culture and the wider Japanese customer experience it delivers across all their customer facing commercial contexts. I hope I succeeded in a small way.

I hope you all enjoy it. Here's the link, again.


Consistency. The key to CX success. Consistent what?


It's all about politeness and respectThere are plenty of excellent CX white papers which speak to the importance of "consistency" across a wide range of service dimensions and "customer touchpoints" along the "customer journey". All very  logical and methodical.

(I always wince at the coldly analytical language used by CX professionals when referring to we, mere, 'human beings' in the CX context. As if we were just a cell in an Excel sheet, trickling down to a bottom line somewhere below)

We're people!

And if there is one thing that is utterly consistent about the customer service in Japan, which IMHO leads to a lot of other positive CX outcomes, it is this....


Some of the original research I came across when I began my "omotenashi" project on where to find the best customer service in the world is particularly interesting, conducted by Nate Silver (a political pollster who accurately predicted President Obama's first campaign win).

Two countries came first and second in his research on tipping and perceptions of great customer service.

Guess which they were? Coincidence? I think not.


So why is politeness so very important?

During my recent stay for several months in #kyoto I noticed that after a few days of being on the receiving end of relentlessly polite treatment, in every shop, bus, taxi,supermarket checkout, etc. that something happens.

One's (for want of a better way of putting it)  "barriers" come down. No longer are you subconsciously prepared all the time to (even occasionally) be flat out ignored, spoken to in a disrespectful way, dismissed or scowled at. And once these psychological barriers come down, you open up to all sorts of vendor-customer interactions. Every shop presents the possibility of making a new friend, winning a smile and generally being made to feel good about life.

And, speaking of politeness, one last thing.... literally.

There is a culture in Japan of what might best be described "Greetings". And beyond the usual "Welcome, Hello" they also frequently deliver a genuine, polite, "goodbye". A "Farewell Greeting".

In many hospitality and retail settings in the west, you are lucky to even get the "hello".

So if you are wondering where to start with your customer service training, try installing a corporate culture of being consistently polite to all your customers/guests. It costs nothing and is a highly effective way of starting a profitable and enjoyable relationship with them.


Japan's public service example

"Japanese soccer fans clean up stadium, showing why they are the nicest in the World Cup..." is the title of this short video. And not for the first time. They do it all the time.

So what has the Japanese sports fan habit of treating public spaces as one might treat one's own home got to do with omotenashi ?


The ethos that lies behind omotenashi is "serving others with no expectation of thanks". Just for the sake of it and just because it is the right thing to do.

And while none of us are there there to thank these decent young people personally, we all feel the same degree of respect and gratitude if for nothing other than the example they set.

Roll on the Tokyo Olympics, now posponed until 2021.

The world is about to get a Japanese master class in fair play, self respect, hospitality and friendship.

Empathy, Face and Harmony


It is said, by those who analyse and study Japanese culture, that the three main drivers of  social interaction are Face, Harmony and Empathy.

Kao, Wa and Omoiyari.

Taken together they serve as the social glue that binds Japanese into a tight, homogeneous culture that has clearly understood rules and etiquette.


The principle of KAO, or "face" is one of the fundamental drivers societies across the Far East. It directly affects people's sense of pride, reputation and status.

In Japan, it is seen as highly important to preserve it by avoiding direct criticism as much as possible.


Wa means harmony, a highly important social value which underlies their ability to work closely in cooperative teams. At work, this comes across by avoiding assertive behaviour and a keenness to keep good relationships  with coworkers despite differences in age, gender and background.


This is arguably the most fundamental value which possibly lies behind the other two. Without a sense of empathy you might not bother to seek harmonious social relationships, nor care about preserving other people's "face".

Here is an example of a text book that brings the concept into the modern e-communication world. A book entitled "Business emails with professional Empathy".

The phrase "With Professional Empathy" might seem a little cold and calculating, and perhaps even less than genuine, but like everything else in Japan, there are ways to do something and better ways to do it. Rules and etiquette. This little book obviously puts together their concept of "best-practice" in this area.

But Japanese society is not alone in formalising and teaching to the subject of how to communicate with others in an appropriately empathetic way, using the right words and level of interest and genuine caring.

If you google up the title of this book in English, you will find quite a list of resources to inform along precisely the same lines. The only difference being, perhaps, that the quality of empathy is highly regarded in Japanese culture, and in western culture perhaps not such much.

How does a Kyoto bike shop stand out?


The iconic MamaChari city bike. Complete with basket.

In my enjoyable 3 month stay in Kyoto, Japan, researching the extraordinary omotenashi customer service culture, I was lucky to have been loaned a bicycle to get around on by my homestay host. One he had borrowed from a friend of his.

Little did my host know that I love cycling and that I would go on to ride this "mama chari" ladies step-thru city bike a total of about 2,000 kms over the next 90 days. I went everywhere! Everyday. Averaging about 30 kms a day.

Now Kyoto is very cycle friendly city. It is mainly pretty flat, has nice wide boulevards, wide pavements (that's sidewalks to my American readers) and as for the overall size, it is a city of about 1.5 million people.

Kyoto is mainly flat and bike friendly

Binary Market

As a result of this combination of geography and bike friendly design, there are lots of cycle shops and they're divided into two main types:-

1. High End (expensive) "pro bike" shops selling the latest models of the top brands and technology.
2. The rest - mainly comprising "mama-chari", city bikes, kids bikes and budget spec. electric bikes

There are approximately 30 of the High End "pro bike" shops and quite possibly several hundred of the rest. They seem to be on every street corner by my observations riding all over the city.

It's a competitive business then!

So - if you are in this highly competitive business, how do you survive / compete? as the industry has a relatively low capital investment barrier to entry?

Obviously by a combination of customer acquisition and customer retention.

How do you achieve that?

By delivering memorable, polished Customer Service - which leads to increased word of mouth recommendations -> customer acquisition + retention.

Q. What form does that customer service take in Japan, where expectations of customer service are sky high? Because the way you treat the customer - courtesy, politeness, friendliness is taken for granted here.

A. Even higher levels of the professionalism with which you deliver the product or service:- product knowledge/expertise, new bikes and bike repair/service activities.

So today I get to interview Kuroda-San - the owner of RJ Cycles,
one of the 30 or so high end pro-bike shop on one of the main arteries in Kyoto, know as Marutamachidori.R

I met him in my first week in Kyoto when I dropped into his shop to see some of the latest cycling technology and models, and quite coincidentally met him and his wife up at a convenience store in a small village up in the hills above the city a couple of weeks later. He was off to do one of his mountain bike trail afternoons, and I was doing a circuit in the northern hills above #kyoto

As he was on my regular route home from "downtown" - I got to visit his shop several times and get to know him.

R S Cycle - one of Kyoto's top pro bike shops

Let's see what he has to say about "Omotenashi" customer service. Is it something he is familiar with? And what other aspects of the customer experience model are important to him?

What does "Omotenashi" mean to a boutique hotel in Kyoto, Japan?


My impression of Kyoto!

Today I have been invited to meet Keren Miers, the General Manager of the Noku Hotel, Kyoto. He is a seasoned international hotel manager who has long experience in Asia and Japan in particular. Keren is not only the G.M. of one of Kyoto's top hotels, but also leads an active sporting life as successful Triathlon competitor.




G.M. Keren Miers. Also a Triathlon athlete.

The Noku is a stylish, polished, 81 room "boutique" hotel that caters to visitors to Japan, in a super location right next to the Kyoto Imperial Palace and very close to convenient subway transport stations.

The front of the Noku Hotel, Kyoto.
Great location near the Imperial Palace Park and subway station.

Right next to the Imperial Palace and Park

Inside the Imperial Palace

Boutique hotels generally have the freedom to be designed in ways to represent their vision of the local culture and to manage themselves in the same way. But they also face the same challenges as other large hotels catering to inbound overseas visitors with their particular needs and varied cultural perspectives.

So what does Omotenashi mean in practice?

I'm obviously interested to learn from Keren what the famous Japanese "Omotenashi" customer service philosophy means in theory and in practice to a top manager in this kind of venue.

Q. Hello Keren. Thank you for the invitation. Please tell me about your professional experience here in Asia.

"Hello Paul. Welcome to Kyoto. And welcome to the Noku Hotel

I started my hospitality career in 1978 in Australia and moved to Saipan in 1997 which had a lot of Japanese visitors at the time.  In 2002 I undertook my first project in Japan, based in Tokyo, where I managed a portfolio of top quality serviced-apartments in 5 locations across the city. I finally came to Kyoto in 2017 when I was appointed General Manager of this interesting and exciting Noku Hotel.

In that time I have seen the inbound tourism industry to Japan grow from strength to strength from around 5 million annual visitors to over 30 million - and the excitement is building as we head into the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics."

Q. What about Omotenashi? Is it an important part of what you offer?

"Since the awarding of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, "Omotenashi" has become a buzzword for the excellent customer service and hospitality visitors to Japan can expect.

Christel Takigawa introducing O-MO-TE-NA-SHI to the Olympics!

Before that, it was not actually a word that the Japanese government had tried to particularly promote. But now the word appears much more frequently in marketing literature across the hospitality and customer service world.

Q. But for people who have come across this word, Omotenashi has obviously come to mean great service in the Japanese style.

"Yes. But in my opinion, "Omotenashi" quality Customer Service can sometimes seem a little robotic to non-Japanese. That's because the behaviours are based on exceptionally polite Japanese language conventions which has nuances that visitors to Japan obviously cannot understand.

But once you get past that, there is much more to it than just exceptional politeness and courtesy".

Q. So how do you and your team deliver this Omotenashi spirit in practice to both your Japanese guests and your overseas visitors?

"Well, in the Noku Hotel we actually aim to take our own Omotenashi service spirit to a higher level. We do this by trying our best to make it personal and responsive as well as highly courteous and polite.

We deliberately give our staff permission to use their own initiative to offer higher levels of personal, intelligent, attentive service. We teach our teams to put themselves in the shoes of the guest at all times. Learning to think and feel as a guest would.

A good example would be recently, when one of our team was asked for a special kind of foam pillow by one of our guests and took it upon himself to go out and buy one immediately. In our service culture he didn't need to ask permission to do that and his initiative was used as a learning example to other team members."

Q. Do you need to train new staff on how to be polite and courteous?

"We never have to do that. These habits are established in Japanese society since childhood. Respect for elders, teachers, parents and guests.

What is also interesting is that we sometimes find new staff who have come from entirely different professional backgrounds and we never have to school them on any aspect of the courtesy and politeness expected in the hospitality industry.

Apart from some process training we only need to give them the confidence to deliver value-added hospitality by letting them know the things they can do for guests without asking for permission.

That way they are able to be more spontaneous and provide memorable experiences for our guests that go beyond any possible language barriers on either side."

Q. I notice the aesthetic in the rooms is a mix of minimalist Japanese design and western convenience. And the rooms are very large compared with most hotels in Japan I have been used to staying in. Was that deliberate?

"Yes, Paul. That comes from the freedom we had as a boutique property at the initial project design phase. Each of the rooms has it's own unique feeling and colour combinations with specially curated artwork.

Even though we are a Singaporean brand, we connect with and respect Kyoto culture.

We have tried to capture the essence of Japanese design while at the same time meeting the needs of our international visitors who expect much larger rooms than you generally find in Japan."

Generously sized rooms

The challenge of Social Media

Q. What is your experience with Social Media these days?

"That's a great question! Social Media is so important to guests now, as a way to find the best places to stay and as a way to provide feedback themselves.

I’m proud to say that we get overwhelmingly positive reviews on TripAdvisor and the Online Travel Agent booking sites. We are ranked in the top 25 of quality rankings for Kyoto’s hospitality providers on TripAdvisor. It’s one of my tasks to respond to guests who leave feedback, both positive and on rare occasion, negative. So I can make sure things are better for the next guests. I give them the courtesy of thanks, acknowledgement and apologies if anything has ever gone wrong.

Our team are regularly mentioned for the great customer service that they provide our guests.

Perhaps that courtesy on social media is also part of our Omotenashi!"

Thank you for your invitation and your hospitality today Keren.

The Noku Hotel "Omotenashi Team"


I found my visit with Keren Miers in the Noku Hotel very interesting. It seems to show that the western management approach of giving personal autonomy to team members can be successfully married to the Japanese tradition of heartfelt, polite "omotenashi" customer service, to deliver a higher level of enjoyable, memorable Customer eXperience.

To smile or not to smile?










This article is interesting because, unlike a lot of customer service "research", it's based on some hard data.

Does smiling help or hinder sales?

And it arrives at conclusions that are, to many, surprising.

To summarise the article:-

Some social scientists devised an experiment to try and test the effect of happy, smiling customer service in a real world scenario. And what the effect was on the sale compared with a sad or neutral facial expression.

I won't spoil the plot - you read it.

Smiling is just one of several elements of non-verbal body language. It is also the one that is most easily detected as being fake or genuine.

The most well known scientist to have done research into the "technology" of smiling was called Guillaume Duchenne and he identified two types of smile. One which includes raiding the cheeks and smiling around the eyes, the other without. 

More recently the expression "Pan Am", or BOTOX smile has been coined to describe a totally fake smile. Having worked in the airline business for a while I think I know where this came from!

My interest comes from what I have observed about customer service in Japan. What they call "Omotenashi" service. Generally rated to be the best in the world.  My observation is that it is not a culture that uses or forces a big smile in service situations. I have never felt myself on the receiving end of an inauthentic facial expression.

The wordless component of their customer service authenticity appears to come from their attention to detail and consistent attentiveness throughout the process, from initial greeting to polite goodbye.

In Japan, it is not about the smile - it's about the attentiveness. And that is where the all important authenticity comes from.

"Positive Endpoints"


Here in the west, MBA equipped "customer experience" consultants evangelise in impenetrable buzzword jargon about about the importance of "positive endpoints" in the "customer Journey" - (Translation  - about how the "goodbye at the end" represents the best opportunity to connect with your customer.) All as if this is some kind of ground-breaking rocket-science insight. 


Meanwhile, in Japan, they do this routinely as a natural part of their extraordinary "Omotenashi" customer service culture. With a polite bow and a smile.  "When the young sales associate walked me out to the sidewalk to bow and thank me for coming into the store, I knew I wasn’t in Chicago anymore.  After all, I hadn’t even bought anything."


We have so much to learn....while the most effective behaviours in the world's best-practice customer service culture example are there for all to see. Right in front of our eyes.

Lexus embody the whole Omotenashi Customer Experience ethos

Omotenashi, a word originally used to describe the Japanese ethos of extraordinary hospitality and customer service has more recently come to be used to describe excellence in “customer experience”.

The messaging is that if you care enough about your customers you will design your products and services to demonstrate that mindset. Everything about the brand should demonstrate it is “customer centric” in  every way. In this way you also communicate that your future relationship with the brand will be a pleasant experience.

That it wasn’t merely a transaction for them.


One of the best examples of this use of Omotenashi  is the Japanese automotive brand LEXUS. They've built their messaging around Omotenashi and what they believe it really means to them, their brand and their relationships with their customers. Lexus have obviously thought deeply about the attitudes and philosophy behind Omotenashi and come to the conclusion that it applies to every part of the customer journey.

From the form and function ideas behind the vehicle's original CAD drawings through to the technical and customer service training their dealership employees are given. It's Omotenashi from start to finish.

Technology to the rescue!

Japan is going to be hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the 2021 Masters Games (games for old people!).

It's an expensive business playing host and the organisers have legitimate concerns about how to host so many visitors, many of whom will be coming to the country without a word of Japanese beyond "Sayonara!" And not much interest in learning, either.

But their first challenge is attracting those visitors, because one look at an international airline route map makes the challenge fairly clear.

Tokyo, Japan is about as far away from the advanced western economies as it is possible to be. Almost as far away from west coast USA as it is from Europe. So it's going to be important to let potential visitors know they will get a great welcome, a trip that won't break the bank and plenty of attractions to see apart from the games events.


To that end, Japan has been promoting their legendary culture of advanced hospitality known as Omotenashi. Not only have they been letting the world know that visitors can expect to be treated like royalty, but they have also been preparing the groundwork, so to speak, with a countrywide programme of "Omotenashi Certification". Something like Michelin Stars for their thousands of hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions.

Omotenashi Certification

For those of you who can read Japanese (with its three written language scripts - hiragana, katakana and thousands of kanji characters), here is a link to the certification website. See the problem? English is not widely spoken in Japan and their own language is one of the hardest to learn. And it is no surprise that their 1 Star Omotenashi rating is mainly about certifying that you have put up signage in languages other than Japanese.

But one thing is certain and that is that these games are going to be the most futuristic ever seen, delivered by a society that is at the top of its technological game. Expect robots. Lots of robots. And driverless cars. And augmented reality smartphone apps. And more.

Technology to the rescue

One company has realised one of the problems and come up with a useful solution. Mass transport in Japan means getting on a train. Or the subway. Or a Bullet Train. And going from one of their thousands of train stations to another. Here's a mind-boggling statistic. Of the 51 Busiest Train Stations in the world, all but six are located in Japan.

Imagine trying to navigate your way around Japan through these huge stations and not understanding a single word of the many announcements? I used to have to do this and it is overwhelming.



This company is using technology to do just that. Generating instant translations of any announcements by using a smartphone. Rather cool I think. And given an interesting name. The Omotenashi Guide. All part of the high technology welcome that awaits us.

I just love this story. On several levels.

Firstly, there's the element of UK-centric incredulity. Here, in a service culture that routinely abuses its customers. 20 mere seconds? Secondly, in Japan it's a non-story, and certainly not one to make the front page of the state media. Any Japanese person would agree that of course they ought to apologise.  "What's strange, or newsworthy, about that?"

I hear some Japanese people thinking, especially as the head of the rail network has yet to resign over it.... And thirdly there are the comments under the article - themselves rather enlightening. Japanese expectations of customer service are on another planet. There is much we could learn from them.

Train leaves early

The art of delivering exceptional customer service

The art of delivering exceptional customer experiences is something every culture can excel at in their own ways.  If you understand the elements that go in to the process....

Not unsurprisingly though, this Japanese blogger describes the "Omotenashi" extraordinary customer service ethos in Japan as "something pre-programmed into every Japanese person". 

Fortunately, we're all human, and the drivers behind the excellent  customer experience outcomes there in Japan are just as prevalent in our societies in the west. But our societies do differ culturally and perhaps therefore,  we need to nurture, encourage and facilitate them in different ways.

Such a process begins with understanding what the attitudes and behaviors behind the 'Omotenashi' customer experience actually are. 

The Japanese Art of Exceptional Experiences

Customer Service - How to say "No" !


There's an in interesting account by Jan Carlzon ex-airline CEO and writer of a great customer service book called "Moments of Truth".

He relates how he was staying in The Oriental Bangkok Hotel and asked the General Manager how it was that they had won a Best Hotel in the World accolade for 10 years in a row.

The manager replied “I can’t pinpoint anything special, but there could be one thing, Jan. And that could be that we have not given the authority to our front-line people to say “no” to our customers,” he said. “We have only given them the authority to say “yes” to our customers’ demands and requests. If they, for any reason,” he said, “if they have to say ‘no,’—because that happens, of course; they have to say ‘no’ to special requests—then,” he said, “but not before then, they have to ask for permission from their own managers.”

"Not likely, here in U.K.", I hear you say.

Worse than "not likely", actually. Jan goes on to lament his observation that in the west, almost the exact opposite is often the case. That front line customer service staff only have the authority to say "NO" to any special request and need to ask for permission to do any special favours. He suggests that this all comes as a result of our cultural habit of rigidly following the “service standard” – whatever the impact on the customer. And almost not a week goes by here in U.K. when there isn't a story in the newspapers highlighting an example of slavish rule-following customer "service" intransigence.

Thailand's service culture

But two things interest me personally about this story. Firstly, I lived in Thailand for 17 years and know the hotel very well, having dined there and enjoyed the “Bamboo” jazz bar on many occasions! And thus, I understand the culture and society I married in to....

Yes. The service is superb. But these subservient behaviours by front-line Thai customer service staff come as a result of the fact they would not dare decline a "special request" - never knowing the social status of the person doing the asking. Politician, ultra-rich family name, police general, etc. And no, this is not an aspect of Thai society/culture that I in any way admire. It only works because there are so many managers floating around to defer to. Something our 1st world economy cannot afford.

In Japan they also avoid saying "no"

In Japan, the service process/baseline-standard is also superb, well-practiced and rules-based. As a result, like us here in the west, they also have their difficulties in acceding to 'special requests'. (For the most part one doesn't mind much anyhow because the baseline service standard is so high). But there is another reason they 'get away' with a measure of intransigence on occasion.

You see, the Japanese hardly ever use the word “no” to one another And especially not in customer service settings. Using it is thought of as a bit blunt. Rather rude. As a result they have developed many other ways to say “no” much more politely.

Expressions such as, “A little bit…,” or “How interesting,” or “May we give that our best consideration,” or “This is complicated", pause.... "but…” When someone says these things, they are very politely, but clearly, telling you “no”.

For example: You have queued up to buy a ticket for the bus and there are no seats left. The ticket counter person won’t tell you straight “There are no tickets left.” Instead he or she will probably keep you waiting, pretending they are looking for something on the computer, smile awkwardly, and say a version of “Finding seats can be difficult.” Any Japanese person will at this stage immediately understand their request is not deliverable and appreciate the politeness with which they have been refused service.

This is an example of what they call "tatemae". A polite 'front' Japanese are adept at putting up so as not to be too confrontational. The opposite idea to 'tatamae' is the word "honne"

Honne and tatemae are Japanese words that describe the contrast between a person's true feelings and desires (本音 hon'ne, "true sound") and the behavior and opinions one displays in public (建前tatemae, "built in front", "façade").

The Japanese deploy "Tatamae" with great skill in delivering their 'OMOTENASHI" customer service culture so their guests and customers never have to deal with the unpleasant experience of being told flat out "NO" to a request. And that's one reason the customer experience in Japan leaves such a good after-taste.

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.

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.