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Empower Your Customers on a Personal Level
Tokyo convenience stores can teach you everything you need to know about customer service.
Posted May 21, 2010
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During a recent trip to Tokyo, the differences to everyday life in the United States were often very obvious and culturally driven. But there were many occasions where customer experiences, behavior and expectations transcended the cultural differences between East and West.

Tokyo living spaces are small, so homes are set up for maximum usage of space. Small refrigerators are the norm. Because people don't have the room to store bulk products, most don't go to Costco (though there's a big one just outside Tokyo). Consequently, convenience stores and grocery markets play a much bigger role.

Most Japanese visit a convenience store nearly every day. These offer some (rather unappetizing) prepared food and a vast array of drinks, sundries, candy and various staples. And while that is not notable, the convenience stores (every single one) are immaculately clean. So clean you'd believe it OK to eat off the floor. The array of products are well displayed, it's very easy to find what you want (even if you're not a native Japanese speaker), and the selection of products is surprisingly large for the size of the store. Compared to the experience of shopping in convenience stores in the United States — well, there is no comparison.

But the biggest difference, beyond the cleanliness and wide product selection, was the level of customer service that Japanese convenience stores provided. I was always greeted warmly when I walked into the store, thanking me for coming in and then thanking me profusely again when I paid. (In addition, the stores observe the Japanese cultural norm of bowing as you take your purchases and leave.) It made me feel like going back to see what else they had.

And the Japanese have mastered the art of keeping the store shelves properly stocked. Instead of stocking everything all the time, they practice a sort of just-in-time marketing. They know what time of day people buy particular products and change the displays accordingly. It's a very complicated task but from what I saw the Japanese convenience store operators relish the challenge, since they take such great pride in every job they have.

The big customer service takeaways:

  • Get Clean. Make your place of business (or Website) friendly and inviting and sparkling clean — people notice.
  • Get Thankful. Thank your customers for coming (on-line or off-line) and then thank them again. And again.
  • Get Personal. Get to know your customers on a personal level and find out what things you might offer, and when you might offer them, for purchase in your store or online business.
  • Get Smart. Understand why your customers do business with you specifically and continually look for ways to offer them what they want, when they want it and how they want it.
  • Get Creative. Is your business proposition distinct in its category? What makes it distinctive? If it is not then find ways to be unique and stand out.
  • Get Real. Knowing exactly what sells — and when — is critically important. Find a way to measure as much as you can (everything you can) and then act decisively on that knowledge.

And that strong sense of pride I mentioned earlier comes through not just in convenience stores and on subway platforms (which are immaculately clean as well — amazingly so since the traffic is so dense). Restaurants, department and even appliance stores all share the same attention to detail that I found in convenience stores. Yet the convenience store impresses, since from a Western point of view it would be the last place I would anticipate finding top notch customer service. When I lived in Manhattan many years ago my roommates and I would have to decide whether we wanted to go the closer "dirty deli" or the more upscale "nice deli." Choosing between levels of customer service is a choice that one does not need to make when in Tokyo.

One of my favorite short stories is Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean Well-Lighted Place." It's a good practice to think about how your business would look under the bright lights — after all, it's said that "sunlight is the best disinfectant."

Providing a superior customer experience requires a multifaceted approach in any business. Convenience stores in Tokyo taught me more than I ever could have imagined!

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About the Author

Mark Kolier is president and founder of CGSM where he has orchestrated the strategic evolution of his company from a traditional print production agency into a full-service marketing organization that offers print and mailing, direct marketing, strategic marketing, and creative services. For more information please visit www.CGSM.com.

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For the rest of the May 2010 issue of CRM magazine please click here.

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