Customer service: Japan vs. United States?

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Japan. My first time there. Wife and I hit several cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Yokohama. One of the things that made a big impression on me was flawless customer service everywhere we went, from the nicest hotel to the most obscure little noodle shops. Walk through the door, and you are instantly greeted with a smile, a bow, and a welcome. staff are attentive and will approach if you look even remotely like you might need attention. Uniforms are clean and neat, shirts are tucked in. Cash is handled with extreme care: if a 10,000-yen note (about $120 these days) is handed over, they hold it up and get you to acknowledge that they’re accepting this big bill, and then they verbally/visibly count out the 1000-yen notes in the change while you watch. Every time. Ask a counter guy at an electronics store for help finding an item, and they’ll jog through the store to get it for you and bring it back to where you’re standing.

We got back about a week and a half ago. Last night we had an experience that seems typical of customer service in America. We went to Macy’s to return a purse. Cashier station in purse department was closed, with a sign indicating so. OK, we wandered to a nearby cashier station with no “closed” sign, but no staff. Waited a couple of minutes, then moved to an even further cashier station with some activity. After reaching the counter there, the cashier told us we needed to take the purse to a different counter; she pointed to a station maybe 50-75 feet away, and said " that semi-blond lady behind the counter," then left us to find our own way there and make contact. In the end it all worked out, but the bottom line was that nobody seemed particularly passionate about helping out.

So why the difference? Why is customer service so great in Japan, and so hit-or-miss here in the US, especially in a craptastic economy where you’d think people would be scared shitless of losing their jobs? Do Japanese customers demand excellent treatment, whereas American customers accept mediocre treatment? Or do Japanese business owners demand star performance from their employees, even though the customers would probably be OK with less stellar treatment? Or do Japanese social customs automatically result in employees who are internally motivated to give good customer service?

Basically, this. What you see as “stellar” is perceived as “the way you do things” in Japan.

Yeah, there’s a level of formality that goes on in Japan that would be out of place in the States. It’s a trade-off. The awesome customer service is nice, but do you really want the dude at 7-11 chirping “Welcome to the 7-11!” every time someone walks in the door? There’s a formality to observe for every occasion, and it can sometimes be frustrating. I think I’ve mentioned on here before that intercom announcements at my school are preceded by 4 chimes, then the person on the intercom announcing “This is an announcement.”

And the underlying knowledge isn’t necessarily any different. I’ve been to electronics stores and had a question, and had the clerk pick up the box and read the back to try to find the answer, just like at Worst Buy back home.

BTW, how’d the kanji study go?

It didn’t. :smiley: But the trip motivated me. It’ll probably be a couple of years before we go back, and hopefully by then I’ll have developed some slightly useful reading skills…

I’ve never seen it taken to that extent, but I actually appreciate walking into a shopping center and having two greeters bow while saying “irrashaimase!” I take it as simply another sign of respect and appreciation.

It’s always good to know of someone else on these boards who is learning the Japanese language. Let me know if you need any help with kanji.

As Nava alluded, it is simply part of the culture. Americans, very generally speaking, feel customer service is a low-rung vocation.

Oh no! It sounds like Japan is slipping. ;):wink: When I was there, we had two greeters at the top of each escalator landing in the major department stores. Being Gaijin, I could ask a question in fractured Japanese/English and get the full attention of an entire floor and occasionally the store manager to assure my full satisfaction.

It was wonderful. They would even leave you alone while shopping unlike some furniture/car salesmen back here in the US.

Customer service people are paid low wages, you get what you pay for.

I worked in a hotel in Chicago, it was rated in the top five hotels in Chicago and the #8 rated boutique hotel in the entire nation.

Those people JUMPED for anyone who entered that hotel. They were expected to do so and paid decent.

I still can’t get over how common now it is for cashiers to be talking on their cell phones while they ring you up. This happens at Walgreens, 7-11, Target, K-Mart, at least in Chicago.

I find it amusing my branch of the Chicago Public Library was once one of the nicest and friendliest. They made huge cut backs in hours and staff and now it routinely takes 20 minutes or more just to check out books. The whole staff, which formerly was nice, are just downright rude and nasty now. Clearly they’re overworked and just quit trying.

I imagine a lot of workers feel like this

So, what is the customer supposed to do in reply to the bow and the “irrashaimase”? Do you bow back (but at less of an angle, to denote your higher social status)? Do you say anything in reply?

I prefer to be left alone until I have a question. I may look like I need help, but I’m just thinking. Of course, if nobody is there to answer my questions, that’s another story.

And I hate familiarity at whatever store I go to. The day some cashier asks me, “the usual?” is the day I find a new plaxe to shop.


Some respond with a slight bow of acknowledgment. Some simply smile and walk on. Many don’t acknowledge it at all.

Cashiers, greeters, and department store floor staff in Japan tend to be in their late teens to mid twenties, so I don’t believe they’re highly paid either, but they take pride in their work and strive for excellence.

I am also not convinced that increasing the wage of the average American customer service worker would result in better or higher quality service.

Often times I’d be satisfied just to have my existence/presence acknowledged. And again, that courtesy is only one part of the whole customer service picture. Add in staff who dress as though they care about their appearance, handle money in a deliberate, meticulous manner, are ready/willing to help when called upon, and who are attentive to what’s going on so that you don’t have to feel like you’re interrupting their day when you ask a question.

No escalator greeters, but we did see a couple of smartly dressed greeters at the front door of Isetan in Kyoto Station.

Also shopped in Daimaru near Dotonbori (in Osaka), and there was an elevator operator, pushing buttons and calling out floors.

[sub]Oh good morning Mr. Tyler. Going…down?[/sub]

As much as you might complain about customer service in the US, it’s a million times better here than in the UK or mainland Europe.

I’ve never been to Japan, but I’ve bought a lot of things on eBay from Japanese sellers, and I have to say, they blow American sellers away.

American sellers are, by and large, a bunch of dirty lying rotten scoundrel fucktards. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought something described as “perfect” or “mint” and the damn thing looks like it’s been tied to the back of a car and dragged around the parking lot. There are wonderful American sellers, of course, but they are in the minority.

In contrast, I’m ALWAYS surprised at the stuff I get from Japan. They describe their items so critically and they come in and are virtually pristine. I don’t know if it’s an offshoot of wanting to sound humble or something, but it’s a pattern that always holds.

I don’t know about that, RNATB. I’ve been to France quite a few times, and the French, who are supposedly the rudest, nastiest people in all of Europe, have always been friendly and accommodating to me, especially in restaurants and hotels; not to the level of the Japanese of course, but I’d certainly place them at least on par with Americans when it comes to customer service.

On the other hand, one of the most popular convenience stores/gas stations in Phoenix is QuikTrip, and it’s not because they have the lowest prices for gas (they don’t). Their facilities and store are always clean, they have between 4 and 6 employees on duty where most other gas stations are overcrowded if they have 2 people, and the employees are generally very courteous and try to say hello to each person as they enter. I shopped in convenience stores in Japan that were rattier with more disinterested employees.

I would tend to suspect it is not the wage paid per person, but the number of people being paid a wage, that is the problem.

Understaffing makes every job nigh impossible. In fact, your complaint about Macy’s is essentially that they were understaffed.

Businesses, especially retail businesses, love to cut costs by cutting staff. (relatedly, in the short term, investors LOVE businesses that cut costs by cutting staff, even if it, in the long term, destroys the business a la Circuit Shitty). Even if the employees that remain are paid decently, they are run ragged.

From the American business point of view, in Japan they pay a lot of people to stand around doing fuck-all.

ETA: I have heard Eurpoean people say that American customer service is fawning and servile, what with all their "is everything ok"s

My complaint about Macy’s?