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Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011
Japanese service winning customers in Europe
By SHIGEMI KOTAKA
Japanese enterprises are well known for their meticulous and cordial customer service, and now some are finding success in Europe by incorporating these standards in their business strategies.
Usagiyama, a Japanese-style inn outside Zurich that serves haute cuisine from Kyoto, is one such establishment trying to charm locals with Japan's unique customer service.
Una Huegli, a 39-year-old lawyer, visited the inn with his wife for their wedding anniversary and was particularly struck by the deferential deportment of the staff.
"I was quite surprised when a maid knelt before opening a sliding door to enter a room," he said.
The service at the inn, which goes all out to meet customer needs, is impeccable, he said while sipping a bowl of green tea in a Japanese-style room.
Manager Masafumi Kurahayashi, a 52-year-old former investment banker, spent ¥650 million building the establishment in 2003 in the hope of promoting Japanese culture.
The inn's restaurant has made a name for itself by serving unique Japanese dishes using locally produced vegetables.
"Making the very best out of the things that are at hand is the motto of Japan's tea ceremony and it appeals to European customers," Kurahayashi said.
Fast Retailing Co. meanwhile has brought Japanese-style customer service to France with good results.
At its Uniqlo shop that opened near the Opera National de Paris in autumn 2009, around 30 employees gathered one day to rehearse their lines shortly before the store opened in the morning. In unison, they chanted "bonjour" and a phrase meaning, "Please tell me when you need any help."
A sign in the jeans department reads, "Jeans 100% Qualite Japonaise," suggesting the store is geared to meet the tough standards required of a retailer that serves Japanese people, known to be among the world's most demanding customers.
As soon as customers began flocking around a checkout counter, a clerk rushed to man another cash register to serve shoppers as quickly as possible.
To pass muster, employees have just 90 seconds to wrap a product, hold out the receipt to the customer with both hands and look at him or her in the eyes with a smile. This level of attentiveness is somewhat rare in Paris, where shop clerks often chat with colleagues instead of serving waiting customers.
"Shoppers will likely come again if they are served promptly and treated nicely," 29-year-old shop manager Caroline Gire said.
The store is so popular that it has to limit customer inflows on busy days.
A common question is why such attentive customer service took root in Japan and why it gets such a good reception outside the country.
"The Japanese tend not to verbalize and try to work out another person's feelings (without asking directly), and that's how the Japanese have learned to be considerate to others," said Noriko Takenouchi, in charge of service innovation at All Nippon Airways Co. "It's impossible to devise a perfect instruction manual on how to care for each customer."
As a result, she doesn't think Japanese-style customer service can be completely copied by foreign firms.
Nissan Motor Co. goes to extraordinary lengths to satisfy customer needs. For example, the door of its Infinity luxury car, which debuted in Europe in 2008, unlocks automatically when a person holding the key approaches. When the door is opened, the driver's seat shifts back, turns several degrees toward the driver and lowers slightly to make it easier to climb into.
"Foreign critics said in the past that we were trying to make up for the inadequacies of our cars' functions by throwing in nonessential frills," said Shiro Nakamura, Nissan's chief creative officer in charge of design and brand management. "Now that we have caught up in terms of product performance, our ability to offer features tailored to customer needs has become an asset that enhances the uniqueness of our products."
Nissan President Carlos Ghosn and other foreign executives also helped the automaker rediscover uniquely Japanese traits that had long been forgotten by its Japanese staff and decided to reflect the company's passion for meeting every conceivable customer need in its overall business strategy.
Shiseido Co., 30 years after first venturing abroad, drew up a new service manual in 21 languages in 2010. Through the manual, titled Omotenashi (hospitality) Credo, the major cosmetics maker tried anew to instill in its employees around the world the company's dedication to cordial interaction with customers.
"The warmth of Japanese-style customer service should be welcomed all the more in this age when person-to-person relationships have become so tenuous," said Jean-Charles Viti, vice president of Paris-based Shiseido Europe S.A.S.
"Foreigners, who are knowledgeable about Japan, tend to frequent small Japanese inns where they are treated with gentle attention to their needs," said Susumu Takahashi, vice chairman of Japan Research Institute.