Why the LEXUS commitment to OMOTENASHI is so consistent.

When I began my research into the Japanese service culture they call Omotenashi, it did not take too long to come across LEXUS here in U.K.

Lexus, the luxury vehicle division of the Japanese automaker Toyota, stand out in the highly competitive U.K. car sector. It is that end of the business in which customers are no longer merely buying a vehicle to get themselves from A to B in some degree of comfort! They're not only buying a superb creation of refined and reliable design and engineering, but also, an experience. A feeling. Something of a lifestyle statement perhaps.

Of course Luxury is an experience

When you are selling a luxury automobile you are, of course, selling an experience. Everybody knows that. One that begins the moment your customer makes first contact with the brand and the dealership. Often even before the moment they walk across your forecourt and into the actual showroom itself.

Lexus had this figured out some years ago when they took on board the underlying philosophies behind Omotenashi culture and, in this example, interpreted and applied these ideas  to the U.K. social cultural context. Delivering extraordinary levels of customer-centricity in a very British way that actually begins with some of the high touches in the car's design and carries through, seamlessly, into the experience of buying one. And owning one, after the purchase.

The (predictable) result?

Consistency. Year after year they are the top ranked dealership in U.K. - and elsewhere I imagine, in terms of the customer experience they deliver. And consistency in service delivery is one of the component elements of Omotenashi culture itself. Team members in corporate service cultures like this don't have "grumpy off-days". They can't afford to. Excellent service IS the product.

But isn't Omotenashi a hospitality philosophy?

What make this particularly interesting is that fact that they exist, obviously, well outside the hospitality space in which Omotenashi culture originated. Or do they?

While I was researching the underlying concepts I came across the Japanese version of "The Customer is King" - which we are all familiar with in the west. The Japanese version is "O-Kyaku-Sama wa Kami-Sama desu"  - which, once the polite bits are stripped out,  translates to "Customer Divine Is!" But also as "The GUEST is Divine". Because the Japanese word for Customer "O-Kyaku"  means both. Your customer is your guest. And vice versa. (hoteliers, please note).

Once you have internalised this idea, which Lexus obviously have, you end up treating customers in your dealership as you might guests in your home. Not a service philosophy based on being subservient, or servile, but rather a relationship of equals with high levels of respect being exchanged across the experience. Which is why it feels so enjoyable!

I expect to continue to see Lexus at the top of the car dealership customer experience winner's list for a long time to come.



The Loft Airport Lounge wins again

Every now and then one reads a press release about an organisation that has won a prestigious annual award not once. But twice.

That's when I pay attention to the story.

Because to win such an accolade just once can often be due to to any number of other factors. Maybe they got lucky! Or in that year there was little real competition. Or any number of other factors.

But to win twice, and more than that, to do it two years in a row, is a definite achievement that implies that the unique elements that went into the winning formula were not only summoned up in the right quantities in one year, but baked into the corporate culture cake  - so to speak. And that's an achievement that speaks of Vision, Leadership and Management.

So I say "Omedetou gozaimasu!" Congratulations. Whatever you are doing. Do more of the same, consistently. Because an almost boring consistency of polish, quality and attention to detail is the hallmark of Omotenashi service culture.

In this case the vision is based on #omotenashi - the culture of delivering an extraordinary customer experience with relentless consistency, professional polish and no expectation of thanks. Which brings me back to my headline. 

“The quality of hospitality! is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.

It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."


Ho’okipa meets Omotenashi. Gets married!

Q.  What do you get when Hawaiian hospitality culture meets Japanese hospitality culture?
A.  A rare and potent combination of two powerful ideas!

The Kahala Hotel and Resort from Hawaii, has recently established a new sister property in Yokohama, Japan. Wow! it looks great! I'd really like to experience that.

Aloha Spirit

What is particularly interesting is the meeting of hospitality minds, hearts and philosophies that this initiative represents.

Hawaiian hospitality culture is based on "Aloha", the underlying culture embedded in the basic greeting. Japanese is embodied by the word Omotenashi, which is such an important part of Japanese culture but isn't actually a greeting word.

While Hawaiian hospitality culture is based on the loving and peaceful Aloya Spirit, the actual word Hawaiians use to refer to it is "Ho’okipa". And here I must find another definition from the experts...

  • Ho‘okipa is the Hawaiian value of hospitality.
  • Ho‘okipa is to welcome guests, customers and strangers with your spirit of Aloha, transcending the norm in serving others.
  • Ho‘okipa is the hospitality of complete giving. It defines a true art of unselfishly extending to others the best that we have to give.

Does this ring a bell?

Substitute Omotenashi for Ho’okipa and you have pretty much the same idea. Especially in the last line there. It's no wonder that Japanese make up the largest group of tourists to Hawaii.

And one thing you can be sure of... the Japanese staff in this Hawaiian hotel resort, found in the heart of Japan, will have little difficulty in understanding the Hawaiian philosophy of Ho’okipa and delivering it with the Spirit of Aloha.

Final Thought

A trip to Hawaii in definitely on my bucket list! During my time living in the Far East I have known several people who live there and they definitely radiate this peaceful, relaxed worldview.

TOKYO 2020 is back on. Officially.

It's official, or at least as official as we might expect, barring some other unforeseen global catastrophe...., the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are definitely on. Come what may.

"The postponed Tokyo Olympic Games will go ahead next year "with or without Covid", the vice-president of the International Olympic Committee says.
John Coates confirmed to news agency AFP that the Olympics would start on 23 July next year, calling them the "Games that conquered Covid".
They were originally scheduled to start in July 2020, but were postponed due to Covid-19 fears.
The IOC had earlier said they would not delay the Games beyond 2021."

When the Tokyo Games are held next year, it will be the first time the world will experience a global activity of any type since the outbreak of COVID19. It will truly be historic. And the significance of this happening in Japan cannot be missed. It's a major statement of forward looking optimism and goodwill that Japan will be meeting the challenge of hosting the games at all in these unprecendented times.

Now, in one respect, the mere fact that the games are going ahead at all is more important than the "how", and in what "spirit" they are going to host the games. Because, remember, the games were won on a bid that Japan will host the games in the spirit of "Omotenashi", that quintessential Japanese spirit of service and hospitality that all visitors to Japan feel almost as soon as arriving in the country. Lucky visitors to the games will experience, many for the first time, exceptionally high levels of politeness, attentiveness, attention to detail, courtesy and friendliness. 

The classic Japanese "other-centered" approach to guest hospitality and social interactions will be showcased. All those behaviours that we are seeing emerging thankfully, here in the west, in response to Covid19. The unselfish respect for your personal space, the unquestioning face-mask wearing, a common feature of every winter in Japan anyhow and the confidence giving cleanliness you notice everywhere and particularly on public transport .

I, for obvious reasons, hope these games are a success and are remembered for all the right reasons and visitors to Japan, as well as those who will only get to watch on television, will remember them as the "Omotenashi Games", and a point in time we put the COVID19 pandemic behind us.


Conde Naste looks forward to the Olympics - now 2021

“Every Olympics is a chance to reveal the best of the host city and its people,” says Condé Nast Traveler travel specialist Amy Tadehara. She works with InsideJapan Tours, which has put together several itineraries for the Tokyo Olympics. “I am thrilled that the world will see true Japanese omotenashi: a generous spirit of selfless hospitality towards visitors that goes above and beyond expectations.”

Conde Naste Traveler Tokyo 2021 Olympics

If you are one of the lucky ones who manage to get a ticket to travel to Japan to next summer's Olympics, no matter which venues you visit, you are going to have to stay somewhere.

And when you do, you'll be able to experience the hospitality and service culture that is in many ways unique to Japan.

The Japanese use the word "omotenashi" to describe this culture and, perhaps for our benefit, describe it as a "hospitality" culture. But in many ways it is almost the opposite of how we approach the hospitality industry in western hotels.

The western approach to hospitality is highly organised and provides a growing range of services, amenities, experiences and culinary choices that go way beyond what most guests need. It increasingly uses technology to commoditise and automate the provision of these features in the same way Henry Ford turned the automotive factory into a production line. For our hoteliers, more services to sell is "more $", more processes to automate simply means more clock cycles and bandwith.  

The Japanese approach is almost the complete opposite.

It remains one in which the gracious host engages one to one with his honoured guests. It is not commoditised, codified and automated. Because it can't be. Not at least, at any significant scale. For this reason, Japanese professionals in the industry will tell you that Omotenashi is something only the Japanese can "do", or "deliver". 

For the Japanese, less is more, from decor to amenities, what you can sell turns into what you might give away for free and there is less interest on service elements that can be duplicated for every guest and more on magical moments that can never be duplicated. One time One meeting

East greets West

But the Japanese have been learning how to deliver our western brand of "hospitality" at scale, in many of their world class hotels that deliver a 5* guest experience to their international guests. An experience that is quite recognisable as to us as professional  "hospitality". Now increasingly  automated and codeified.

Inevitably though, it is the combination of both approaches and cultures that points the way to the future - a unique form of mass personalisation with technology enabling both the mass hospitality process automation whilst freeing up the hotel's hosts to deliver the peronalised human connection experiences.

Difficult to put into words

It is quite difficult to capture the feeling that an "omotenashi hospitality" experience can leave you with in which even the most banal service interaction can be deeply memorable.

If you are genuinely curious as what what "omotenashi culture" is all about, there really is only one way to find out.

One of many 2021 Olympics Tour operators

Leave your cultural preconceptions at home, treat your hosts with the generosity of spirit with which they will treat you and find yourself on the receiving end of something that is quite remarkable and, as you can see from my failing attempts here, rather difficult to put into words.

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.

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?