Apologizing to your customer—A Japanese perspective
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Other pages in this series:
» The "competent" employee
» Life of a Salaryman
» Apologizing to your customer
» US Training Issues


Apologizing to your customer—A Japanese perspective

Outside, torrents of water streamed down Hong Kong's streets as the typhoon hit the city. Police recommended that vehicles stay off the streets. Safely inside the hotel, Japanese tourists were waiting impatiently in the lobby for the van which was to take them out to an elegant seafood dinner. Where was the guide?! Japanese tourists, used to prompt service at home, often expect departure time to be exact, down to the minute. He was now 20 minutes late. One older woman was particularly offended at his lateness, and kept grumbling to the others about his irresponsibility. Finally the guide came charging full speed up the escalator into the lobby, drenching wet, breathlessly apologizing over and over for the inconvenience he had caused. Not once did he mention that the typhoon had delayed him.

The woman beamed at him, and said, "You came running!" patting him on the shoulder. All evening, she kept saying approvingly to her companions, "He came running!"

Here we see two hallmarks of what "good service" means in Japan:

1. Diligence in trying to fix a problem

--even if it is beyond your control

Dedication is measured by sincere effort. If the tour guide had ridden up the escalator, or even walked, one of the tourists would probably have filed a complaint. The important thing is to sincerely attempt to "do the impossible," and to show you are solely concerned about the customer's needs and desires.

A Japanese tour company manager who handles serious customer complaints saw it this way: "Non-Japanese guides think that good service means responding quickly to fix a problem. But to the Japanese customer, solving the problem is a matter of course. More important is that you recognize the inconvenience they have experienced."

2. Profuse apologies--even if it is not your fault.

"First and foremost, apologize (Mazu, ayamaru). Then you can talk about money," the customer complaint manager explained.

Apology can be uncomfortable for foreign tour guides because in most countries, apologizing equals an admission of guilt or personal responsibility. Apologizing can mean you may get unfairly blamed for the mishap--even fired.

In the United States, people do apologize to their customers when something goes wrong. Yet fear of being blamed means that when you say you are sorry for something, you will probably also:

  • Follow with an excuse: "Sorry I'm late, but traffic was terrible."
  • Or invoke regulations so that the institution is the one at fault. "I'm sorry, but smoking isn't allowed in here."

At the corporate level, a Japanese company may publicly apologize for their actions and the company president may take official blame--even step down. In the U.S., corporate lawyers usually don't permit even a hint of contrition in public statements.

Most Japanese see apology as an attitude of humbleness and concern for others, rather than as an admission of personal fault. Apologizing and diligent attempts to resolve an impossible situation are therefore seen as basic courtesy.

When an airline flying to India misplaced Japanese tourists' baggage, complaints came in because the local tour guide reportedly shrugged and said, "No problem." The Indian guide meant that "Delayed baggage is a problem we can't fix. We have to be patient here."

His Japanese customers heard, "Hey, don't get upset, this isn't such a big deal." They knew the guide could not instantly produce their bags out of the sky. What they did want was sincere apologies and a visible attempt, even if it was obviously futile, to retrieve their luggage.

In your organization ...

  • When are people rewarded for apologizing?
  • When do they avoid apologizing?
  • Does showing diligent effort count or do only results matter?
  • How would your customers answer these same questions?

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