Japan: service on a gold platter

THE Japanese have an expression that is used in-house for delegating work from supervisor to staff: Tekito ni shite kudasai. This phrase could be translated literally as ``Please take care of the matter as you think is appropriate.'' It has, however, a more precise implication: ``I want you to take care of the matter the way it should be done without my having any further instructions to give you. But you had better not make a mistake.''

Service industries, and the growing awareness that all workers are engaged in some form of service, have recently drawn media attention. Urging that businesses in the United States must change their attitudes toward customers and perform beyond the requirements of the supervisor's expectations, critics of US service to customers have begun to be heard.

``Doing extra,'' doing more than what is expected, is generally rewarded in Japan, even when there are no perceptible results. Trying your best is recognized, appreciated, and assumed to be the norm of behavior. There are no excuses for mistakes, poor service, or ignorance of the supervisor's or customers' needs. In Japanese culture, providing service is viewed positively - as indicative of good character, upbringing, and education. Those who do not know how to serve are viewed as virtually having a flawed and unrefined character.

The reverse side of this picture shows American attitudes toward service. Good service does not always bring about immediate results. The often intangible benefits of ``doing extra'' in such a culture are not often rewarded. In other words, the independence factor central to self-esteem in mainstream-American culture does not consider the ability to serve others as a positive quality to have or cultivate. Serving others, by definition, requires interdependency and status distinctions - distinctions not generally recognized or valued in the US.

In today's competitive global market, however, US attitudes toward customers are changing. Companies doing business in Japan - and elsewhere - now make it a practice to deliver more than what is called for under the terms of the contract. The belief that the seller knows more than the customer about the customer's needs is fading. Another belief - that excellence in a product is sufficient for increased market share while poor customer service will not affect sales - is more difficult to dissolve; but it, too, is slowly diminishing on the horizon.

Customer service requires tolerating customers' demands without making excuses for failing to meet their needs. ``No excuses'' is a harsh, unforgiving rule for the workplace. Yet the assumption that service can be excellent requires higher expectations by management and staff. And a commitment to excellent service means that both manager and staff will be able to take care of the matter without further instructions - and without the need for excuses.

Diana Yoshikawa is president of Interface Japan, a consulting firm in Palo Alto, Calif.

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