Can You Compete in the Land of Supreme Customer Service? 

Can You Compete in the Land of Supreme Customer Service? 

What does the average Japanese customer really care about when interacting with your business? Are there cultural differences you should be aware of? 

Certain rules of customer service are universal. Listening and empathizing are basics in the customer care profession. Yet, differences across cultures could land you in a tight spot if you aren’t aware of the subtleties. 

So what methods should your business consider implementing to boost customer loyalty and capture more leads?  

Here are 3 key strategies—backed by data—that will help you maximize customer satisfaction and minimize the risk of offending potential prospects when communicating with them.

Key #1. Apologies

A paper from Osaka Prefecture University published in 2019 (Japanese PDF) highlighted the primary differences in how American and Japanese customer service professionals handle complaints, based on a survey of over 300 respondents from each country. 

Key #1. Apologies

The data revealed Japanese professionals would apologize and explain the cause of the problem at a higher rate (26.8%) than their American counterparts (15.5%). 

Japanese customer service professionals emphasize garnering customer understanding by apologizing properly (JPN 78.5%; US 51.8%), while American customer service professionals focus on making the customer happy by offering practical solutions in the form of cash or gifts (US 17.1%; JPN 2.2%) or insurance for injuries (US 44.2%; JPN 15.1%).

Other notable points from the study include the following: 

  • US customer service professionals accommodate customers in a casual and friendly way, treating customers like old acquaintances, with the primary focus on customer happiness and satisfaction. 

  • In Japan, customer happiness is vital. But formalities and doing things the “correct” way are equally crucial, such as respecting distance, using honorific terms, and being quick to apologize.

Foreign business owners may be puzzled over why Japanese apologize so readily and profusely at every turn. And you may balk at the idea of doing so yourself.

This points to an underlying cultural difference of what a verbal apology entails. In the US and other Western cultures, apologizing is close to admitting fault, which could spark demands for compensation. 

In contrast, although Japanese people value apologizing, doing so does not necessarily lead to taking some form of responsibility for an action. In other words, an apology is considered a formality and a stepping stone for moving forward in Japan. 

In fact, apologies are such a cultural cornerstone that today there are businesses (e.g.,, you can hire who will apologize on your behalf if you have made a gross misstep.

For the business owner intent on offering a five-star customer experience, have a set of beautifully crafted standard apologies at the ready, and don’t be stingy in giving them. (Or ask our business assistants to help you with that!) 

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Key #2. Speedy responses

In a previous TokyoMate article, we touched on the main source of customer dissatisfaction: long wait times. But how long is too long for the impatient Japanese customer?

PR TIMES issued survey results on the theme of “Relation between customer satisfaction and inquiry form response time” (trans. title).

This survey gathered answers from 853 male and female respondents, ages ranging from 15- to 84-years-old. Although this survey’s sole focus was on replying quickly to inquiry forms, the results are telling of the Japanese consumer’s expectations of customer service in general.

How quickly should customer service respond before you give up?

Responses revealed 70.5% of the respondents would not wait longer than 24 hours for a reply. Therefore, making customers wait for longer than 24 hours will likely lead to customer dissatisfaction.

Further questions revealed the response time that feels fast: 49.8% would consider a response taking up to an hour as a speedy response.

In other words, an hour is the benchmark for customers waiting for a response, after which they will start feeling impatient. Implement strategies that will help you achieve this time frame.

Key #3. Business etiquette and honorific terms

Knowledge of business manners in Japan can help you avoid embarrassment and gain trust from customers and business partners. 

On the other hand, ignorance of business etiquette can lead to offending the other person and lowering the image of your business, service, or product.

Unfortunately, mastering Japanese business etiquette is challenging, evidenced by this survey of 500 respondents conducted by BizHits, showing that many Japanese don’t feel confident in their business manners and use of honorific terms (keigo).

Do you have confidence in your business etiquette?

BizHits, a company offering tips and advice for business problems, revealed that 40.4% of the Japanese respondents were not so confident in their business etiquette, and 9.8% said they are not confident at all.

Furthermore, 28% of the respondents said they embarrassed themselves in the past for lack of knowledge of business manners. Some examples given were the following:

  • I messed up trying to use an honorific term.

  • I felt stupid not knowing who should offer the business card first.

  • I sat where the most important person should sit out of ignorance of seating arrangements.

For anyone in charge of your customer service, whether it be answering calls or replying to emails, it remains a necessity to use honorific terms, tone, and opening and closing phrases to emails and conversations. 

However, even Japanese have trouble with using the right honorific terms in business emails, phone calls, and interactions. 

Outsourcing your client follow-up to customer service professionals and hiring a live receptionist are effective ways to build solid customer relationships and capture more leads in Japan. 

These 3 key strategies will put you on a level playing field with others in your industry—and could even put you ahead if your counterparts aren’t paying attention to how they interact with their current and future customers. 

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