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CX lessons from Japan - #1: Customers are gods

Store attendants welcome the first customers of the day as doors open at the Mitsukoshi department store, operated by Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd., in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo on June 29. | BLOOMBERG

This is one of a series of observations I've gathered from a short time in Japan, and even in that short span of time, I've learned countless lessons that I would love to see more in the Western world and will be using it more here in CXD Labs.

It was 10.35pm and we were about to walk into Lawsons, a common convenience store located all over Japan. Think of it as a store that will get you through the day if you don't have time to get fresh groceries from your nearby supermarket. We were travelling so getting a packet of frozen pizza and spaghetti to cook while we plan the activities for the next day sounded great at the time.

Walking in, I got the immediate sense that it didn't feel like 10.35pm. What I mean is that there were no dreary eyed employees playing on their phones, no quick glance and a nod to acknowledge us entering the store, no employees doing the zombie shuffle whilst restocking shelves and clearing out expired goods from shelves, and the state of the store showing no signs of a busy day (which the opposite describes pretty much every convenience store I've been through in Australia when walking through late at night).

The moment we walked in, every staff (even the one re-stocking) welcomed us, the front counter gave a short bow, all their voices were in unison and even surprisingly cheerful. The floors were clean, the shelves were stocked to the brim with goods and although I can see that whilst some have been working the whole day, their smiles drew my attention away from their signs of tiredness.

Suddenly, I felt like I just walked in the store as if they just opened. For the first time in a long time, both myself and my wife felt good shopping for frozen stuff at 10.35pm at night.

We thought this perkiness was a once-off thing and maybe unique to this store or chain, but boy we were wrong. Nearly everywhere we went, we were treated like royalty. We felt like we were the only ones in the store, except we were fully aware that there were others in the store with us. When we needed help, some struggled with English but this didn't falter their determination to get us exactly what we were looking for, and if they couldn't (which was rare), they apologised as if they've committed a crime.

At one point we were so overwhelmed by the kindness and excellent customer service we were experiencing that my wife said in Japanese to the person helping us "You are incredible and such a kind person", to which she teared up, bowed even lower than I thought physically possible, and said "Thank you very much", to which every single employee in the store turned to us and did exactly the same!

I scratched my head trying to understand why and how this is so, until I talked to a friend of mine who is living in Japan currently (for over 15 years) and he summed it up perfectly.

When I was a student, I worked part-time at Lawsons. At the start of every shift, we practiced 5 things: how to greet a customer, how to say thanks to a customer, how to apologise to a customer, how to help a customer, and how to wish them to return shopping with us. In front of a mirror. Then, we all said before our shift, either to ourselves or in unison with the team, our motto: Customers are gods.

"Customers are gods". That is a powerful way of looking at customer experience. I admit, it was a bit weird for me to accept it since I know that most of the time it depends on the customer (as they vary), everyone knows the famous quote "If I asked the customer what they wanted, they would've wanted more horses...", etc. But when I thought about it even more, there are some basic truths to this statement: no matter what, the customer is the most important part in business.

By knowing that "Customers are gods", a lot of other things start falling into place:

  • Most people believe that employee experience is more important than customers: I disagree because by putting your customers first, an organisation would do whatever it can to enable and empower their employees to meet the needs of their customers, hence as a result of putting customers first, employee experience would be improved.

  • Most would argue process efficiency is the key to good customer experience: I disagree because until the "Customers are gods" mantra is drilled into company culture, you can improve as many processes as you want but your customers might still walk because they are not getting the level of service they expect, even if it includes some manual work for your employees.

  • Most would argue that the key to good CX is to get a good CX measurement system in place so that you can identify pain points, data mine key words and find action points. Ok, I'm not advocating against measurements because they are important but get this: I filled in a total of ZERO customer feedback forms in Japan. Zero. I didn't have to because the employees demonstrated great customer service because they were empowered to do what they can to get us what we needed.

"Customers are gods" was an eye opener for me, not because of the sheer simplicity of the statement, but how the Japanese were able to develop systems around this whole mantra. And as for Lawsons, if it was asked of me to rate: NPS = 10.

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