Simon Ellacott, a Managing Consultant in our Marketing, Sales and Service practice asks whether digital customer service is the key success factor in Japan’s legendary customer service

Like a celebrity shamed at a seedy Christmas party, customer service in the UK entered January cowering under the media spotlight. First, it received the distinctly lukewarm accolade of being rated 14th of 50 countries measured in the 2010 international customer service rankings from the Nation Brand Index. Second, Mary Portas launched her new TVshow aiming to expose shoddy customer service as she secretly shops her way around the country. “We’re probably one of the worst countries in the world for customer service now” she opined, making the 14th ranking seem even lessof an achievement. I await Mary’s recommendations with interest, as I’m keen to compare her undoubtedly shocking UK treatment with my own recent experiences in one of the best countries in the world for customer service: Japan.

With their reputation for use of technology, I wanted to find out whether there was an underlying trend of accelerated digital transformation supporting Japan’s fantastic levels of customer service.

Japan is a world leader in technology and is famous for consumer electronics and robotics – so I went there with the expectation of service delivered to me by a high-tech futuristic world. I wanted to see Johnny cabs from Total Recall, holographic hosts in shops and eerily lifelike serving robots. Needless to say I saw none of these things. I did see the incredible Theater360 cinema at the National Museum of Nature and Science and the latest sparkly gadgets in the Sony showroom. I was also impressed to see electronic cards put to good use to record pub loyalty points and high scores from the electronic darts machines.

However, I found very little in the way of technology applied as a medium for customers to interact with businesses. In fact it was notable how few machines I had to interact with. In the UK I am entirely used to transaction by computer – from making train reservations online and picking up tickets from automated booths; to booking cinema tickets using IVR systems. Yet whilst in Japan I witnessed first hand (and participated in) the queues to make bookings and seat reservations at the train station, all done by talking to real-life people. I was also struck by the very large number of staff on hand on department stores and the fact that I wasn’t made to do anything myself – I didn’t see a single self-service checkout terminal in any of the supermarkets I visited. A 2009 Retail Banking study put the lack of self checkout terminals down to a national perception that self-checkout reduces the level of service (though they also said this perception is changing). This finding resonates with what I saw – good service in Japan is something you receive, not something you supply yourself.

Perhaps I have missed some of the stunning examples of digital customer service in Japan through being merely a visitor rather than living there – I’d love to return to investigate more. However it’s clear to me that the outstanding service I received was not as a direct result of the Japanese aptitude for technology. So what did make the Japanese customer service outstanding? Here are the 3 factors that offer some explanation:

Consideration: Noriko Takenouchi, a senior manager in charge of service innovation at All Nippon Airways Co (as reported on Japan Today) said ‘‘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. It’s impossible to devise a perfect instruction manual on how to care for each customer.” It’s the personal touch that makes customers feel valued.

Sincerity: Tipping is not often found in Japanese culture. Shop workers do not work on commission. So the interest people show in your needs when serving you is sincere – you don’t feel that they want to be your new best friend merely as a pretext to get your money.

History: One view is that the influence of Confucianism in Japan means that people accept unequal power relationships. Different status levels in society are accepted without the person with the lower status being somehow ‘worse-off’. With servers being comfortable showing deference to customers and a strong tradition of ritual and etiquette, customers both expect and receive a high level of attention and service.

Digital transformation has a big role to play in the future of customer service, but it doesn’t solve everything yet – human intervention is still incredibly important.