If You Want to Fly High in Japan, Aim to Delight Your Customer

Every time I visit Japan I’m struck anew by the service ethic that permeates business and society here. The differences between Japan and the U.S. are profound – and perhaps help explain why foreign companies often struggle to gain acceptance with Japanese consumers.

It begins with the flight experience. A trip on a Japanese carrier feels like an upgrade to a different class of service. The flight attendants greet you with a smile, help you with baggage and are available through out the flight. The seats, food and check-in experience are similarly better – and charges for checked baggage have yet to take root in Japan.

The differences between visiting a company in New York and Tokyo are equally stark. In New York, getting access to a client’s office can seem as difficult as gaining admission to an exclusive nightclub. First you have to get past a large, surly looking security guard in an ill-fitting blue sport coat with a walkie-talkie strapped to his side. Once you’re on premises, you have to wear an instant identification card with a grainy mug shot and a misspelling of your name.

In Tokyo, a client visit usually starts with a stop at a desk in the lobby, where a succession of fashionably uniformed women will welcome you in English with a smile, affix your security badge to your coat pocket, escort you to the elevator and bring you a drink before your counterpart arrives, bowing politely when entering and exiting the meeting room.

The ability to navigate these expectations regarding service has a direct connection with a company’s ability to succeed in the Japanese market. Those that understand it and deliver exceptional service, can do very well. Starbucks Corp. of the U.S. comes to mind as a company that has raised its game to compete successfully in the Japanese market. In contrast, U.S. auto companies’ notorious refusal to modify their product for the Japanese market provides an example of an industry that has long hindered its ability to succeed.

For companies that want to succeed in Japan there are several important lessons. First, they should dedicate as much effort to building an excellent service and support model for Japan as they do to the product itself. Customer expectations begin at a high level, so it is not sufficient to merely replicate the U.S. delivery standard.

Second, careful staff selection and training is essential. Fortunately, Japanese employees start with a strong service mentality, and they are receptive to precise instruction and performance drills. Moreover, the lower level of turnover in Japan means that a company can justify greater investment in its staff.

Finally, there is a silver lining. The market in Japan will often sustain a higher price for a product than in the U.S. In the software arena, for example, market prices in Japan may be 20-100% higher than in the U.S. market. Even better, once customer or client commits to a particular company, product or brand, they generally remain more loyal over time.

As I prepare to travel home, I keep hoping that maybe this time my flight experience on my U.S. airline will delight me. Then again, my ticket was $300 cheaper than a seat on the Japanese carrier, so, alas, I’m expecting I will get the service that I paid for.

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