What Consumer Startups Can Learn From Japanese Culture

Kencho-Ji Temple in Kamakura outside or Kyoto

I recently had the pleasure of traveling to Japan with my family and I was astounded by the culture that pervades every aspect of the country. Especially given the current state of the US, I thought a post unpacking the Japanese culture could be helpful to all of us to focus on.

Before diving in deeper, I just want to start off with one example of Japanese culture. The streets of Japan are so freaking clean that you can eat off of them. You don’t need to tell people to keep an area clean because littering just feels wrong. You’re ruining the vibe of the street by dropping your object on the street. Compare that to NYC where you can drop your whole lunch on the street and it feels right at home next to the garbage bag that is spilling its contents all over the sidewalk.

NYC Streets…so beautiful

Cleanliness is such a focus that even at the construction sites there is an additional worker who is just sweeping the floors. In the US, companies care about profits and would look at that worker as needless overhead. In Japan, that employee is viewed as a necessary component to making a construction site safe, efficient, and easier to operate. I’m going to guess that the Japanese company makes more longer term profits based on the efficiency gains and culture of workers making sure items are stored properly to make things easier to find. I will say that Amazon is the exception to most US companies. Walk through an Amazon distribution warehouse and everything will be spotless….funnily enough Amazon is also focused on long, long, long-term profits.

Everything in Japan is built to minimize error bars (a term my sister came up with). This means that public instructions are carefully laid out to help the population better navigate the infrastructure. Every little detail that can be thought of and dealt with is addressed in an easy to understand way. Here’s some specific examples:

  1. the sidewalks all have a line drawn on them to delineate on what side people should walk to and from to optimize traffic flow,
  2. each train/subway station has specific areas painted where the doors will stop,
  3. within those areas different paint dictates areas where women, children, and handicapped individuals have priority,
  4. menus at the restaurants have pictures of the food so that you can see what you’re eating (important if you have allergies and also don’t speak the language!)

So big deal, the Japanese spend on infrastructure and make sure everything is clearly marked, why does that matter? Well the influence that has on the society is profound. People expect things to operate with order and as such obey the rules. Nobody litters because it would be weird to do so. At the subways, at each clearly marked door station, there is a single file line waiting to get onto the train!! Can you imagine that in the US! There’s never been a subway on time…ever. People are rushing to get in and pushing each other because the conductor is going to leave with or without your hand since he’s already 20 minutes behind.

So respect, cleanliness, and efficiency are tenets of the Japanese culture. How does this tie into customer service? My dad went into a department store to buy a pair of sneakers. Upon purchasing the sneakers, the employees put the shoebox in a paper bag similar to what you’d get in Macy’s. However, before handing it to my dad, they took a plastic wrapper and carefully wrapped it around the bag while stapling it at the bottom, leaving the handles clear. Why did they do this? It was raining outside! They didn’t want my dad carrying around a paper bag that would tear apart after getting wet. I assume for most of the Japanese people that this is expected. In the US though, I can tell you that a little thing like that would make most customers remember because no other retailer is taking the extra 10 seconds to be that thoughtful about the customer.

Here’s another example, we purchased a Christmas cake from a local bakery in Tokyo. The cashier asked how long it would be until we arrived to our destination and we let her know it would be about 30 minutes. When we arrived at our spot, we opened up the box to eat some delicious cake and found a small ice pack in there to keep the cake chilled. Once again, it was a little thing that maybe took an extra minute to do, but made a whole lot of difference to us.

It tastes better than it looks if that’s even possible

There’s countless more examples of how the culture influences business interactions with consumers. Here’s the point to all my rambling so far. If you were starting a B2C company in Japan, all the things mentioned above would be mandatory. If you didn’t pay this much attention to every aspect of the customer experience, you’d just be incongruous with the overall culture and you’d lose customers. This brings up an interesting point for US startups though. US consumers are not used to this level of customer service. They are not used to having somebody think about wrapping plastic around their paper bag when it’s raining. If your startup takes the time to train staff properly and think about these little details…you have yourself a competitive advantage.

The common argument people may have is that the internet changes things. This is true to a certain extent. There’s a base level of service that US consumers enjoy now. They want to be able to return items seamlessly and actually be able to reach somebody on the phone when they need to. If a company lets them do those two things, then customers are fairly happy since this experience is still novel. However, that doesn’t create a competitive advantage. People have come to expect that from most newer consumer internet companies. Founders should take the time to figure out what extra small step can be taken to surprise the customer. What extra minute can be used to better the customer experience. Perhaps when an item gets shipped, there’s a handwritten note from the person who helped package the item. Perhaps the packaging is designed beautifully so that it excites people to get an item from your company. I’m not sure what the answer is for each startup. However, in the US and many other countries, we do not live in cultures that expect high levels of customer service. Taking the additional time to think through these small changes can have a meaningful impact on the long-term prospects of a business. It will also influence your own company culture and feed upon itself, ever improving the customer experience. Don’t just take my word for it. One of my favorite podcasts to listen to is “How I Built This” by NPR. The interviews with the CEO of Zappos and Patagonia maybe the best examples of taking customer service to the next level and building a competitive advantage for your business.

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