The Customer is God

not mcdonalds

In a previous life I worked in retail in the Highlands of Scotland. We were told by our foul-mouthed, hypocritical manager that we should provide good customer service because, “the Customer is King”. Of course in practice it was pretty rare to see this policy turn to action, particularly if the customer happened to be an unwelcome English “white settler” with a posh accent.

Japanese businesses espouse a similar policy to that of my former employer, but the implementation is worlds apart. In Japan, they say “O-kyakusama wa kamisama” – the customer is god.

I am sitting at a clean, comfortable and modern Japanese restaurant. I watch as a petite, professional Japanese waitress in her mid-30s runs to a seated customer to deliver their meal to their table. It’s not a full-on sprint, more like a dainty trot, probably no faster than walking. But it communicates something: The customer is god. She apologises profusely for making them wait. (They had been waiting less than 2 minutes.)  Another member of the restaurant staff wipes down tables, literally running from one to the next and apologising for the “interruption” to each nearby customer. Since she does this every 10 minutes the table she is currently wiping is already impossibly clean. A family of five enter the restaurant and her attention shifts. She runs to welcome them and to take their order.

“So what?”, I hear you say. That’s no different to a nice restaurant in Australia. But there’s something I’m witholding from you. I’m not sitting at what you would consider fine dining establishment. I’m at McDonalds, having just dropped $2.40 on a chicken burger and milkshake. I finish my meal and approach the rubbish station to sort the rubbish on my tray into 10 different recycling categories. An eager staff member approaches to takes the tray off my hands, laboriously sorting my rubbish on my behalf. “Thank you very much. Please come again!”, she effuses.

It got me thinking about where this motivation to provide excellent service comes from. It’s clearly not the $12 an hour she’s receiving for her considerable trouble. Nor is it flexible working hours or world-class workplace gender equality. Why did she run, instead of walk, to deliver a tray of fatty burgers to a bunch of fatty teenagers?

Most Australian employees are constantly, and unknowingly, calculating the risks and rewards of taking an action that costs effort. We do this hundreds of times a day without realising it. An Australian Maccas employee subconsciously determines that they personally risk nothing if the fatty teenagers have to wait a few minutes longer for their fatty burgers. Stuff table service – these pimple-faced angst-filled pre-adults can just wait here at the counter, right next to the perpetually overflowing rubbish bins.

Back at McDonalds Japan I watch one of the over-helpful staff members more closely. When she talks her mouth smiles but her eyes are glazed. Her voice is upbeat and chirpy, but there is no detectable melodic cheer in her words. She provides polite but impersonal service. She is an ultra-efficient Japanese robot, the product of 12 years of education designed to a produce loyal, unquestioning, hard-working employee. The individual is sacrificed to the group, and as a result my burger arrives quickly and my table is clean.

Who would’ve thought one could attain divine status just by spending $2.40 on a burger and shake?

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Cheaper Coffee

I’ve posted in the past about my dislike of paying $5 for a cup of mud-like filter coffee, and I’ve been actively seeking better alternatives. Today I bought a small filter coffee at Maccas for just 100 yen. After I paid they said they could also do me an Iced Coffee for free. So that’s two coffees, one iced and one hot, for around $1.30 in total.

Coffee still takes like mud, but at least it’s reasonably-priced mud.

mac-coffee
Two coffees for $1.30. I’m lovin’ it.

The saddest eatery in Japan

Yoshinoya

Yoshinoya – It’s often described by worshipful Japanese pundits as “The Japanese McDonalds”. Well, its not really the Japanese McDonalds. That would instead be the actual McDonalds, which is the same as McDonalds Australia except with radioactive caesium.

Yoshinoya is in the business of selling Gyudon – a bowl of rice topped with fried beef. At any time of the day or night you can pop in here and within 60 seconds be sitting in front of a pile of steaming……….. Gyudon.  In part of an ongoing price war with a couple of its rivals, Yoshinoya has cut the price of a basic bowl of Gyudon to 280 yen (just over $3). I was about half way through my bowl before I started to consider whether or not it is actually possible to produce a bowl of Gyudon for $3. I concluded that there must be some parts of a cow (probably somewhere deep in the middle) that are available in some countries (probably China) at a low enough wholesale price for Yoshinoya to make a profit on a $3 rice bowl.

The most striking thing about my local Yoshinoya, however, is how indeterminably sad it is. All of the staff are ladies in their 60s, still working for $10 an hour at this classic fast food joint. The customers are almost all middle-aged men who come alone, stuck working long hours in jobs they hate. They gruffly place their orders without any common courtesy whatsoever. The 60-year-old female workers subserviently run to the kitchen to fulfil them. The decor is dated and tired; the food uninspiring.

Sad Customers
Sad Customers... and
Sad Staff
Sad Staff

Is this the saddest eatery in Japan?