Pancakes Must be Served in the Proper Context

In Japan, customer service is an art. Literally. At a donut shop near where I work, the ladies behind the counter use highly ritualized gestures to tell their customers where to go. Your coffee is over there, one of them will say, her arm floating in that direction like a willow branch on a breeze. And please pay over here. When several donut ladies get going at once, it’s like watching a ballet behind the counter.

Likewise, my haircuts often turn operatic.
“I’m shampooing now,” the shampoo boy intones, working his fingers into my scalp.
“Onegaishimasu,” the mostly female staff choruses in nasal soprano.
“I’m cutting now,” another staff member sings out.
“Onegaishimasu, ” the chorus echoes. The song goes on all day.

Like many serious art forms, Japanese customer service is governed by strict rules. So strict, in fact, that the charm I usually feel here can sometimes give way to aggravation.

There is a scene in the movie “Falling Down” in which a madman played by Michael Douglas flies into a homicidal rage because a fast-food restaurant refuses to serve him breakfast. Breakfast ends at 10:00, the manager tells him, and it is now 10:02.

American audiences love this scene for two reasons. First, they know that the madman’s reaction is truly extreme. Second, and more importantly, they know that the manager is also wrong. By refusing to bend the rules even slightly, he missed out on an easy chance to make a customer happy. Viewers sympathize with the madman’s frustration because they recognize what the manager did as bad customer service.

In Japan, however, such service is normal. Rules are rules, and they must be obeyed — even at the cost of customer happiness. I have observed this attitude in a number of Japanese businesses, but for today I will stick with restaurants.

One day last summer, for example, I went to my favorite local 24-hour restaurant for breakfast at 5:00 AM. The sun had come up around 4:00 AM (this is normal for the Kanto in summer) and was well above the roofs of nearby buildings when the waitress handed me a dinner menu. After glancing over the steaks, pizza, and curry pictured there, I asked for a breakfast menu. She informed me that breakfast began at 6:00 AM. I pointed out the window at the sun and remarked that it was morning now.
She was not impressed.

Having nothing better to do at 5:00 AM, I ordered a cup of coffee and drank refills for an hour. After that, she finally presented me with a breakfast menu.

This restaurant could seat well over 100 people, and at that hour there were only four or five customers present. The kitchen can hardly have been too busy for someone to throw some bacon and eggs into a pan. Still, the rules say that breakfast starts at 6:00.
Rules are rules, and they must be obeyed.

This restaurant has a wonderful breakfast consisting of juice, coffee, sausage, bacon, eggs, a small salad, and a choice of pancakes or toast. I always ask for the pancakes, but one morning I was served toast by mistake. When I pointed this out to the waitress, she was frantically apologetic.

I imagined that after she finished telling me how sorry she was, she would go and get me some pancakes. This is how the situation would be handled at any restaurant in America.

Not so in Japan. To my amazement, she actually took my breakfast away from me — all of it! Instead of the wrong breakfast, I now had no breakfast at all. About ten minutes later she came back with another platter, but this one included pancakes instead of toast. Everything else, it appeared, had been remade from scratch.

In the US, it is unheard of for a restaurant to take food away from a customer. If the wrong item is delivered, the customer is allowed to keep it, and gets the correct item besides. Here in Japan, the waitress went to great lengths to give me a meal that looked exactly like the one pictured in the menu. At the same time, she missed an easy chance to please a customer by giving a little something extra — a piece of toast that I’m sure wound up in the trash. It would have cost the restaurant nothing.

American standards of customer service can vary greatly. Sometimes service is poor, and sometimes it is excellent. In every business, though, going the extra mile is considered the ideal. If you can do something extra to make your customers happy, you should do it — even if the rules don’t require it.

Our language reflects this. In addition to “go the extra mile” we use phrases like “throw in a little something extra,” “lagniappe, ” “baker’s dozen,” “the customer is always right,” and even “the customer is king.”

Pleasing your customers, especially if it can be done at little or no cost, is always a top priority in American business. In Japan, following the rules as precisely as possible seems to be the top priority.
American service is dynamic.
Japanese service is dependable.

Usually, the rules work. The standard level of service is probably a bit higher in Japan than it is in America. But if Japanese service never falls below a certain level, it never rises above it either.

In an ideal world, somewhere between Japan and the US, rules are rules, and the customer is king.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

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