It’s the little quiet gestures of kindness that really count

Omotenashi. What’s it really all about?

It really is the little gestures that make all the difference. This is, in my opinion, the essence of #omotenashi and the #customerexperience that comes from it.

Not the big, flamboyant expressions of welcome, nor even experiences such as the unexpected presentation of a birthday cake in a restaurant. Extroverts enjoy that form of service and treatment. But we’re not all extroverts. Or, to put it more accurately, we’re not all in an extrovert frame of mind all the time.

They all count, no doubt, but no….

It’s the little gestures that are unasked for, done without waiting on a “thanks!” in settings where you don’t tip – delivered by customer service professionals day in day out. Gestures that make a silent connection and make our lives feel good.

Today was the turn of the two ladies in the very pleasant and conveniently located Starbucks Silverstone. 

I’d walked in and claimed myself the last table prior to making my order and in the process had cleared away a couple of disposable cups and put them in the bin. As you do! One of the busy ladies behind the counter saw this and gave me a brief look of appreciation. Nothing more. And proceeded to discreetly prepare and hand me my usual large Americano before I had got to the cashier.

Omedetougoziemas and Arigatou – congratulations and thanks for your kindness.

That was a little moment of #omotenashi

#omotenashi #customerservice

Digital Omotenashi

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.

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.

Some references to “Digital Omotenashi” 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 many other technical 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. Ichigo ichie  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.

 
 

McOmotenashi – even the fast food service has the touch!

Omotenashi levels of personalised customer service are not only experienced in 5 star hotels and the record number of Michelin starred restaurants across Japan. You will even find it in the fast food outlets.

During my recent stay in Kyoto I was interested to see what rush hour in a Mcdonalds looked like.

Would polite, courteous, empathetic service go out of the window under the pressure of rush hour demand?

Would impatient customers pressure the service crew past their usual calm, tolerant limits?

So I deliberately set out one day to catch a snapshot video. Unedited. And neither did I wait for a good bit. This is the only clip I took. Just what I saw in the first 90 seconds in the outlet.

  1. Do you think they are all thoroughly trained by Mcdonalds, or does it come rather naturally to them?
  2. How much longer does it take to get served when being treated hugely politely like this?
  3. Would you prefer to simply order with a touchscreen kiosk?

Well, now there comes a story about how the omotenashi customer experience is being introduced to an even deeper level in Mcdonalds, Japan.

McOmotenashi

“The staff members help customers choose their food items before they get in line at the counter and guide the customers to their seats. The staff members will then bring the orders to the customers’ tables.”

“The fast-food giant deploying special staff members at its 75 outlets in Shizuoka Prefecture and plans to cover 1,500 restaurants, or half of its outlets in Japan, by the end of this year.”

It’s interesting, isn’t it? And I would love to see the Customer eXperience ROI on this, as well.

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”

Conclusion

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.

Tom Naylor

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