Flexible Japan—Stop Dreaming!

Often, the issue is the structure of the service model. Employ the cheapest hourly labour, provide the barest minimums of training, have non-professional management and count the money. In the case of Japan, they can also exploit high levels of basic politeness.

Hot milk is a by-product of coffee shops, but try getting a glass of hot milk if it isn’t on the menu.

When my wife was pregnant with our son, she avoided coffee and tea, but wanted something warm to drink. She became pregnant while we were based in Sydney, Australia (during a temporary posting) and there was no hot milk on the menu, but flexible Aussies and so “no worries”.

The same coffee shop would charge her a slightly different amount each time, depending on the serving staff on that shift. They would just decide what they thought it should cost, as it wasn’t already specified.

Back in Japan, there was a sea of hot milk everywhere in coffee shop land, but staff always gave a firm “no”. And that was that. It wasn’t in the manual.

Order or request something outside the “manual”—beyond the narrow range of orthodox procedure—and the easiest answer is “no”. The politeness of the Japanese language masks a lot of service sins. The act of having to “think” often seems “outside the manual”.

“Beyond my pay grade” is an expression I absolutely loath as it exemplifies a total lack of interest in being accountable for the success of the business, or for taking any responsibility for the sanctity of the brand.

I have never heard the equivalent expression in Japanese, if such an expression even exists, but the mentality can sometimes be familiar.

In the case of foreign retail businesses, there are not so many here in Japan. For those that are here, I am sure a lot of effort goes into not just ensuring the quality of the goods or service, the delivery logistics, and the brand integrity, but also getting the team to be flexible around “not in the manual” situations. If not, give me call!

Call centres are usually great for examples of inflexibility, as the low wages, high turnover, short hold time imperatives, and poor management cocktail really packs a nasty punch.

My credit card was receiving a lot of work and was wearing out. To receive a new plastic card with the same number, I had to lose access to my card for two weeks (I would send the old one back in order for them to send me a new one). After severe hand-to-hand combat over this, a solution was found (they sent me a new card and I sent the old card back).

At the end of this struggle session on the phone, I wondered, Why was that so difficult? I was reminded of John Cleese’s line in the Monty Python’s “dead parrot” sketch: “If you want anything done in this country you have to argue until you are blue in the mouth”.

Why couldn’t that simple solution have been offered at the start? I cannot be the first customer in the firm’s long retail history here who wanted a new piece of plastic with the same number. Why did I have to dynamite an acceptable outcome out of them?

I recall recently being advised to “go to a competitor” by the person taking my call, because of her total inflexibility to resolve my issue.

I won’t labour the point, but it was a simple issue around a preferred starting time. Her fateful words got my attention though. I thought, this person is killing the brand and losing the business money. Why is that necessary? Well actually it isn’t. However, it is often easier to be inflexible than flexible in Japan, so that is why we often get such service.

My experience has been that there is also the inability to articulate sufficiently well the “why” it can’t be done. In fact, there is usually no articulation, just a polite but firm refusal.

This seems more like a training, rather than a cultural, issue to me. Reality check: are your team members successfully articulating the “why” when it can’t be done?

The more difficult to perceive service sins are in the corporate B2B areas. These are not low paid hourly workers, but are the relatively well-paid, lifetime employment, almost impossible to fire, types. They sometimes lack accountability for the business, and brand integrity is a concept totally outside their mental frame.

Mistakes usually make themselves apparent at some point, but this inflexibility that is killing the business and the brand is much harder to ferret out.

You, as the boss, probably won’t ever be told about it. It is almost invisible and like a “brand cancer”—ignore it at your peril.
So how do we build that “go the extra mile” flexible mentality in our team members?

Leadership and management are key factors in setting the tone of service delivery. Ask yourself, “when was the last time I made any mention about the need to be more flexible in our thinking about solving customer’s issues?”

Or ask, “when was the last time anyone who works for me, in a leadership or management position, said anything to the team about winning more share of the pie by being more flexible than our competitors?” If the answer is “never”, or close to it, then perhaps it is time to raise the issue and explain why this is important to the brand.

Another tool often overlooked is “values”. Whenever you ask Japanese teams to compile a list of their personal values, a lot of wonderful words come up—all the usual suspects (integrity, trust, honesty, respect)—but rarely do you come across flexibility.

I do this a lot with client’s teams and have never seen it. What this says is that we need to consciously add this as a value.
Articulate why it is important and provide stories and examples to “prime the pump”. It needs to be constantly referred to as a differentiator of the brand—“a powerful means of delighting customers”.

Get the team focused on this and pray your competitors embrace inflexibility well into the future. Make a plan to go after their clients in the meantime!

To finish on a positive note, I was recently pleasantly surprised by the flexible attitude of a Japanese staff member of a mid-sized Japanese hotel.

Due to a sudden heavy snowfall in Tokyo, drivers couldn’t negotiate the hill near my home. I was one of these drivers, and had to leave my car overnight in the car park of this particular hotel, located at the bottom of that very snowy hill.

Picking up the car and bill the next day, the car park vending machine had never seen such a spine-chilling sum and couldn’t deal with it, thus help was needed.

After explaining why the car was there, the male staff member in his mid-twenties said something very significant: “Thank you for not obstructing the road outside our hotel during the snow storm. I will take responsibility and waive the parking cost”.

Wow! I wasn’t dreaming after all!