Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Customer is God

Recently I've had some experiences/conversations that have led me to reflect on the difference of behaviors and expectations between consumers and specifically service industry workers (though I'm sure this applies more broadly) in the US and Japan. And you know, this particular instance defies the usual stereotypes. Defies, I say!

In English, we have expressions like "the customer is always right" and "the customer is king" (at least I think I've heard the latter one before). Once upon a time this may have been so, and some of the better companies may still try to adhere to this kind of thinking. However, the US is a very individualistic society, and a lot of us don't like taking crap from people, including those we're supposed to be serving. Sure, there are the perpetually moody denizens of the DMV and the Postal Service and a slew of others out there who hate their jobs, but I think a good amount of service workers just want to try to be positive and get through the day without being yelled at for things (mostly) beyond their control.

We also have the expression "You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar." Having worked in customer service positions before, I know that if I get combative and angry at an operator or receptionist, they may feel pressured to let me have my way or rectify their mistake. But they also won't go out of their way to help me. The tactic may also backfire and they may decide to drop the call or drag their feet as revenge. Either way the experience will be a lot less pleasant for both of us if I take out my frustration on the lowly service worker.

Sure, there are tons of asshats in this country. I've talked to plenty of them on the phone. But I know there are also a fair amount of people who think like me - when dealing with customer service you need to be assertive but patient, and try to be nice.

Now let's talk about the Japanese side:


The key Japanese expression to remember is "the customer is God."


There's no doubt about it - service in Japan is far superior than in America. But I sometimes wonder how good a thing that is and whether it's contributing to the high rate of depression in Japan. I'm only being half serious, but really. When I lived in Japan, I often felt bad for people who worked at department stores or restaurants. And especially convenience stores.

Imagine working at a 7-11. You have to do all the honest but menial labor associated with working at a convenience store - make food, stock shelves, ring up customers. Now imagine that you're supposed to loudly greet every customer that walks in. And shout "Thank you, come again" like Apu every time someone leaves. And when someone comes to the register, you're supposed to smile and say "Hello, thanks for shopping at 7-11!" And most of your customers just ignore you and pay without saying a word.

Ok, so that doesn't sound too bad, but what if you're just not feeling it one day? Well too bad! If your manager catches wind of you not greeting and thanking, you'll be out of a job.

To be fair, there were some workers at my (then) local conbini who were great at this. They were friendly and maybe they really liked their job. But at a majority of the places I visited in Japan, these ritualistic greetings and thanks were hollow and robotic. The workers were clearly burned out on it and probably tired of interacting without any interaction.

Japanese people are "supposed to be" おとなしい. That is, meek. Well, I guess a lot of the time they are. But not when they're buying something!

In my Japanese class the other day, we were talking about how in Japan, when customers want results, they yell. "What the hell? Can't you go any faster?!" The answer is no. When someone yells at you to go faster, you get muddled and quality and/or speed suffer. Our teacher remarked that it took her a while to get used to the "American style," where you try to be nice to service people so that they'll help you.

I don't want to go into too much detail, but I had an experience at work recently that highlighted this cultural difference. Basically my boss was upset about something and wanted me to contact the responsible parties and...yell at them. He expected that would earn us some kind of compensation or rectification of the situation. Yikes. 

Given a choice between the two, I really think it depends on what side you're on. I'm not a big fan of service jobs, but I'd much rather be doing one in the US. I don't imagine most people would rather be a customer in the States than in Japan, though. I guess I kind of wish both countries had some kind of happy medium, but it is how it is. What do you guys think?

Oh, and thank you, come again!

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