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?