Can Japan's customer service bend without breaking?

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Gareth Evans: Japan's customer service needs to evolve.
Gareth Evans: Japan's customer service needs to evolve.

Japan is legendary for service, but it may need to evolve to to please an influx of foreign visitors, writes Gareth Evans of Flamingo

Japanese customer service has made a name for itself throughout East Asia and the West. Visitors to Japan are struck by the professionalism and kindness they receive in restaurants, convenience stores, hotels and everywhere in between.

In Japan, there are deep-rooted traditions of treating the customer as king, which these days manifest themselves in uplifting gestures and pleasing solutions. The entire floor staff of a restaurant greeting you on entrance. The measured explanations of products — not too much, not too little. The immaculate staff uniforms. The little leather trays on which to place credit cards and change, the precision wrapping of purchases, the plastic covers for shopping bags on rainy days.

But, there’s an undercurrent swirling. One that needs addressing for a country that needs to move up a gear, and a capital city gearing up for an Olympic Games. This undercurrent says that for all its strengths, Japanese service is too rigid and in danger of feeling old-fashioned.

Across all the service industries in Japan, service is executed like an art, but it’s inflexible. Its successful delivery relies on familiarity and uniformity. This doesn't mean it can’t deal with demanding types and lofty requests, it means it struggles with things that are literally and figuratively off-menu. It lacks that moment of harmless rule-bending that can turn a worry into a grin. It lacks that dose of individual flair that can charm your socks off against the odds.

This rigid type of service may have been easier to swallow if you had grown up and worked through a time when conforming to the rulebook was the norm, but it won’t cut it with generations and nationalities that are more comfortable with informality and unpredictability. Although the 2020 Olympics is an easy focus when talking about international presence in Tokyo, it should not be seen as a trigger for influx. This is already happening.

Between 2010 (pre-earthquake) and 2014, the number of British, American, and French visitors to Japan increased, in each case by tens of thousands. The three biggest visitor groups — South Korea, China and Taiwan — hit record figures in 2014. As foreign residents and visitors increase, and today’s young Japanese enter the workforce and become prime consumers, service personnel must be adaptive.

There will still be a strong base of (active) senior Japanese customers, but in the queue behind them could be a new millionaire from rural China, a skateboarder from London and an aspiring chef from Melbourne. The type of service they all respond well to isn’t going to be the same. The brands best equipped for a changing Japan — for the Olympics, the 2020s and beyond — will be the ones whose service is not just professional and human, but also flexible. 

Some brands are already manoeuvring themselves to embrace this change in Japan. Others must start taking note, and realise that this is not an issue solved with a quick fix. A lick of paint won’t do.

One way to promote flexibility at home is to go abroad. Uniqlo is the shining example of this. In expanding aggressively abroad, the brand has had to embrace agility and responsiveness over familiarity. Uniqlo knows it cannot run stores abroad as it does in Japan — you cannot train foreigners to behave Japanese. But it’s trying its best to maintain its core while inviting layers of local nuance, with all the surprise that comes with it. This can only have an inspiring and liberating impact on its staff in Japan, who will have high exposure not just to the value of learning foreign languages but also to the value of risk and adventure.

Another way to encourage flexible service is to invite play into the service space, welcoming mistakes and mishaps and unexpected interactions between the staff and customers. FAB Café in Tokyo’s Shibuya area, as well as serving a good cappuccino, provides hi-spec printing, laser cutting and other design equipment for customer use. FAB is a haven for freelancers and hobbyists.

Of course, not every café wants a 3D printer sitting in the corner. But this spirit of interaction doesn’t rely on high-tech equipment. It relies on an openness of spirit and can be embraced by much lower-maintenance measures, such as inviting people to pour their own water, cut their own bread or graffiti paper menus. FAB, incidentally, also proves that you don’t need Uniqlo’s scale to dip a toe in foreign waters. The brand's expansion model, based on trusted local partners, has led to FABs opening in Taipei and the Spanish cities Barcelona and Sitges, with Bangkok coming soon.

A third and perhaps more direct way companies can push for flexibility is to empower staff to think for themselves and make decisions based on their reading of a situation. It has become fashionable for companies to claim that 'all of our staff have a voice', but the customer-facing reality often suggests otherwise as they continue to eliminate personality through excessive rules and procedures.

BEAMS, the fashion and lifestyle retailer with 151 stores across Japan, including a row of flagships in Tokyo’s Harajuku area, has put this thinking into practice. The company's Styling Advice Division, established in 2014, is run by two veteran buyers and its remit—purely internal—is to encourage shop staff to seek out their own personal style. To not feel shackled by what colleagues and seniors are wearing and saying. The ultimate aim is to give customers the confidence to broaden their horizons, but an initiative like this doesn’t isolate itself within clothing choices. It breeds a feeling that although there is a united philosophy, there is also a role for spark and creativity.

The brilliance of the Styling Advice Division is that it takes certain pillars of Japanese practice — discussion, teaching, reassurance — but its aim and outcome is flexibility.

Japanese companies should not do away with structure and instruction. The right dose of each is culturally vital. But within that structure there must be more room to move if they are to keep up with the changing demands of global consumers.

Gareth Evans is associate director with Flamingo.

This article first appeared on campaignasia.com.