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Thursday, July 11, 2002

Keep those cards and letters coming, folks

When customers sound off about problems, good companies listen, even in Japan

The McDonald's hamburger chain and I are no strangers to one another. In 1960, when living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, my family used to clamber into our blue-and white 1956 Ford Fairlane and hit the local drive-in on our way home from Sunday school. In those days, a 'burger still cost 15 cents -- about the same as a gallon of gas.

But when I arrived in Japan in 1965, the golden arches were nowhere to be seen. And by 1971 -- the year McDonald's outlet No. 1 opened for business at the Ginza 4-chome intersection -- I had pretty much weaned myself of American fast food, by that time having mastered chopsticks and discovered such locally available goodies as natto, oyako domburi and sweet & sour pork.

It was only years later, perhaps moved by nostalgia brought on by encroaching middle-age, that I occasionally began dropping by my neighborhood McDonald's.

Like its U.S. counterpart, McDonald's Japan works hard at popularizing its food among youngsters. Their menu bears the line "Smile: 0." What erased my smile on this particular visit was the sight of several giggling teenage girls, seated in the smoking section and puffing away on cigarettes. They appeared to be around 15 or 16.

Lately I've noticed more teenagers smoking in public, sometimes even while clad in middle school uniforms. A senior Tokyo police official once told me this happens to be illegal, and that his patrolmen have instructions to roust any kids they catch puffing.

Somehow, to see underage minors smoking on McDonalds' premises offended my sense of wa.

Hoping to discourage this practice, I phoned McDonald's toll-free number, and explained the problem in Japanese. The young female robot who took my call was friendly and courteous, but I could tell from her response that my complaint was not going to cause alarm bells to go off at the next board of directors meeting. So I sat down and wrote to McDonald's chairman of the board, Mr. Den Fujita.

"Dear Sir," my letter began, "I am writing to you personally to request that you will consider posting of signs in your outlets to discourage people under age 20 from smoking on the premises and to instruct store managers to enforce this rule.

"Mr. Fujita, please don't allow your restaurants become places where young people go to 'hang out' because they think they are allowed to smoke there illegally."

Two weeks later, I received a reply on from a Mr. K. Nagase at the Customer Service Department of McDonald's Company (Japan), Ltd. Follows is an excerpt:

"Please accept my sincere apology for your disappointment at our initial response to the issue. I will immediately discuss your comments with the restaurant management to improve the situation. Specifically, we are going to post the signs to decline teenage smoking (sic) in our restaurant and to make rounds at more often and carefully to prevent the teenage smoking in the restaurant."

In the envelope, Mr. Nagase kindly enclosed coupons entitling me to a hamburger and a cup of coffee.

Last week, I visited the same restaurant and lo and behold, while not exactly in prominent view, two signs had been posted requesting minors to refrain from smoking on the premises.

It was gratifying to see the company make an effort to discourage the practice.

If you feel the need to convey a valid problem or complaint, here are a few suggestions based on my own experiences: 1. Write to the company headquarters. (The letter should be typewritten and carry your return address.) 2. State your purpose clearly on a subject line at the start of the letter. 3. Keep it simple. 4. Don't engage in accusatory finger-pointing, but make positive suggestions for improvement.

I decided to go public with this story for two reasons: First, it's good to know that McDonald's Japan takes its corporate citizenship seriously. And second is to encourage readers to get involved. Well managed companies do listen. Don't be reluctant to make yourself heard.

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