Business / Corporate

Japan firms face hurdles as ‘service’ culture taken overseas

by Yuzuha Oka

Staff Writer

At Uniqlo stores worldwide, staff greet every customer with “Welcome to Uniqlo!”

They briskly walk around on a clean, white sales floor, refolding and restacking clothes, rarely talking to customers or each other unless approached.

It’s a Japanese style of customer service based on a strict manual and which is praised for its politeness and efficiency. But as Japanese companies increasingly branch out overseas, they are faced with the dilemma of staying true to this retail philosophy while adapting to local service habits.

“We are fully trained to provide Japanese-style Uniqlo customer service. We have six standard phrases to memorize like ‘thank you for waiting,’ ” said an employee at a Uniqlo outlet that opened last year in Melbourne, Australia. “(But) in terms of greeting, some customers look confused, to be honest.”

In Japan, shop staff typically greet customers saying “irasshiaimase” (welcome), and customers are not expected to reply.

Australia has more casual customer service, and customers feel inclined to answer to the staff when greeted. “We usually have a casual chat with staff like ‘Hi, how are you?’ and ‘Good, thanks’ at Australian shops,” said a 22-year-old female customer at the Melbourne store. “The staff is very polite here (in Uniqlo), but I’d prefer a more interactive style. I don’t know how to answer when greeted (by) ‘Welcome.’ ”

Whether to stick with the Japanese style or to incorporate the local way of communicating with customers is a balancing act for retailers and differs to challenges faced by manufacturers.

According to latest data from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the number of Japanese retailers operating abroad rose 50 percent between 2004 and 2013, while companies in the service sector with business overseas more than doubled in the same period.

The Japan External Trade Organization, which supports Japanese businesses abroad, launched a new department in April focusing on the services industry.

Takeo Nakajima of JETRO said the support needed for service industries was totally different to that for manufacturers.

“Manufacturers can sell the product virtually anywhere once you produce them,” Nakajima said. “However, (the) marketing area for the service industries and retailers is much smaller, so they need to know much better about the local market. That said, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to comply with the local market and ditch the Japanese way.”

Aldo Liguori, director of global PR for Fast Retailing Co., which owns Uniqlo, explained the company’s customer service style. “We don’t say ‘Hey guys!’ That’s too frank, and not our style. We have our special way to deal with the customers; for example, returning the credit card with two hands.”

When asked about the casual style of service expected in Australia, Liguori acknowledged that not all customers wanted that level of interaction.

“We basically hold the ‘help yourself’ policy. Our staff offer a hand when needed, but do not usually talk to the customers before they get approached. We aim to provide a clean and comfortable place to shop.”

JETRO’s Nakajima said there are two types of omotenashi, or Japanese hospitality, seen in outgoing Japanese businesses.

“One is to treat every single customer with thorough care, as seen in traditional Japanese ryokan hotels. The other is to provide quality homogeneous service in a quick and inexpensive way.”

Nakajima noted that it’s inefficient to spend too much time with one customer in certain types of shops, such as a food stand that requires a high turnover rate.

He admitted that “a bit more interaction with customers would help,” especially in some Western cultures that prefer frank relations between clerks and customers.

To provide uniform service worldwide, manuals are indispensable for many Japanese businesses, explained Nakajima. However, he said many Japanese companies struggle with training local staff via such manuals.

“What is common sense to Japanese does not always translate to employees in other countries. For example in restaurants, some employees don’t understand why they need to keep tables clean or report (their) absence when they are ill.”

He said a number of companies write down every single rule and impose a penalty when they are violated. As a result, some manuals become more strict and detailed than ones used in Japan.

“Some businesses end up treating their employees like robots and tell them what to do in a systematic way,” said Nakajima.

At Ippudo, a ramen restaurant operating worldwide, including in the United States, Australia and other parts of Asia, new staff get served as customers during their initial one-week training period and are asked to pick up on mistakes such as floor staff not noticing the “customer” coming in or serving dishes late.

“Then we ask them how they felt about the service. Some say it’s alright, but many others understand the importance of our hospitality,” said Kohei Yano, who was engaged in opening Ippudo stores in Singapore and Sydney. “After all, it’s up to the staff whether they feel the need and practice the hospitality.”

Yano said this training method was specially developed for overseas employees. “Just telling them what to do won’t let them understand how and why we deliver the Japanese-style customer service.”

Ippudo sticks to this formula to a degree: Every time a customer comes in, the staff greet them, saying “irasshaimase” in unison.

However, Yano said it was also important to understand the local culture. “At Ippudo, principal members for the overseas store launch actually live in the country for more than half a year before opening,” he said.

Immersing themselves into the community, they learn the differences in prices or the dining out culture in the area. “For example, the way of using lunchtime is totally different in Japan and in Australia. Many Japanese businessmen quickly finish their lunch alone in 10 to 15 minutes, while Australians tend to spend a whole hour enjoying the conversation. We noticed we shouldn’t force them to eat ramen as soon as it’s served (as is expected in Japan), because they have their pace to eat it.”

Yano said the company will face new challenges in August when it launches a new store in Paris, its second outlet in Europe.

“We will keep changing to stay consistent. What once worked in one country doesn’t work at all in the other — that’s what . . . happens in overseas expansion.”