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July 27, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Where customers are truly kings

Mie shopping at market in U.S.

July 22,1993

Like a lot of other Americans in Japan right now who are not going to the U.S. for the summer, I wish I was, so I could take advantage of the current yen-dollar exchange rate. This would be an ideal time to go on a shopping spree in what one of my hometown friends calls the “World’s Bazaar”.

He calls it that because everything can be bought in New York City, and often very cheaply. But of course like most things that come cheap, it comes with a price: the loss of jobs.

Shopping in the bazaar, traveler’s checks at the ready, I often find myself searching for the sales “help”. Since there is nothing to distinguish the salespeople in either manner or dress from anyone else in the store, I walk up to strangers asking “Excuse me, do you work here?” I strike out half the time, usually being told they too are looking for help.

Then too, I have to deal with the paradox of salespeople not taking their eyes off me. They assume, because of the color of my skin, (they’re not going on any other clues) that I am in the store to steal.

Compound this with rudeness, waiting in line to pay, while two harassed sales clerks attempt to do the work of six — or, more often, resent being disturbed from their snacks, joking around, and chatting — and it’s easy to see why more and more people are shopping from catalogs.

Many American companies sell good-quality merchandise through catalogs, and I’ve found they know the secret to doing business: politeness and good service. Calling in an order, you are not likely to be answered by a recording (and then put on hold for 10 minutes), but a person whose tone of voice informs you that your business is welcome and your order their main concern.

On a recent morning I received a call, and the unfamiliar man’s voice on the other end said, “Mrs. Anton, I’m sorry to call so early, but I thought this would be a good time to reach you.” (I noted and appreciated that he did not address me by my first name.)

He was telephoning to say that an item I had ordered was not available in the color I’d specified — would I prefer to choose another color, or wait a couple of weeks. After making my decision I thought the company definitely got the idea — it is worth the expense of an international call to earn a customer’s appreciation.

Of course, with the service one receives in Japan, you expect nothing less. After 18 years of living here there are still times I quell the impulse to tip because I feel a person has done something special when they’re doing their job.

When I drive into our regular gas station the voices of four or five people call out in welcome. One person fills the car, another asks if I need the ashtray emptied on have any garbage to throw out. Someone washes the front window, perhaps another person does the back. If it’s hot, they offer a cool towel. The car filled, brake lights checked, my credit card is handed back to me as the keys are placed in the ignition. Two people stand in the street to make sure the road is clear when I make my exit, taking off their hats to bow as I pull out.

Now, I know I don’t need five people to service my car and wait on me when I go to the gas stand, but I’m glad those five people have jobs. (One of them, working during his college break, happens to be my daughter Mie’s former classmate.)

This following incident has to be the epitome of good service:

Recently my husband bought something in a supermarket only to find out that it was not at its freshest once he got it home. He telephoned the store the next morning and asked if there would be a refund if he brought the item back. “No sir,” he was told, “you don’t have to come here. Our representative (the store manager) will call on you.”

Later that day, the manager came, in white shirt and tie, with an envelope containing the full refund, plus ¥20 for my husband’s call. He then produced a gift, offering his sincere apologies for the inconvenience he’d caused us.

I thanked him and assured him we accepted the store’s apology and good will and that they could continue to expect our patronage. After the formalities, we fell into a casual conversation and I told him I remembered when the first branch of their store opened, 15 years ago, just opposite the university where my husband teaches.

With this bit of information, the man presented his name card (apologizing for not producing it sooner), and said if we ever had a complaint please be sure he was the first to know.

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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