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A Japanese software experience

If you have been to Japan, you will remember the high level of service everywhere you go. Whether you are in a chain convenience store or a high-end hotel, there is always a level of personal attention.

As you enter any store or restaurant, the first thing you will hear is irrashaimase! This is a general “welcome” greeting but is the first sign that you’ve entered the Japanese consumer experience.

There are always a lot of sales assistants in Japanese stores. I’ve often seen staff just waiting around ready to help but I’ve never been pestered about whether I need help until I specifically ask for it. Perhaps this is because I’m obviously a foreigner or maybe they don’t want to interrupt until I’m ready, but when I am, there is always someone able to help right away.

A sense of urgency exists that I’ve not seen anywhere else. If there is a question an assistant doesn’t know, someone else is always consulted without delay. The staff know what they are doing, or have rapid access to someone who does. If things become busy, new checkout counters are opened quickly and staff are pulled from other duties to make sure there is enough capacity.

Photo of Ippodo Tea, Kyoto
The friendly staff of Ippodo Tea, Kyoto

In the high-end stores, buying something is an elaborate ritual. Purchases are carefully but efficiently packaged, taped, and secured with elaborately designed paper. Even the more casual stores still have that sense of ritual. Coins are placed in a tray and notes deliberately counted when offering change. Efficiency is having many checkout lanes open with queue lines printed on the floor. Card purchases are becoming more of a thing and they always end with the respectful two-handed return of your card (as with business cards and passports).

If you are buying something particularly expensive or elaborate, you will be invited to sit down to wait. When buying something tax-free on my last trip to Japan, I was offered tea and welcomed into a comfortable area of the store whilst the necessary forms were completed. Comfy chairs and no standing around.

Then when you are done, the assistant will escort you out. At the hotel I was staying at recently in Tokyo, after I had finished in the swimming pool and handed back my locker key to the reception, the assistant walked me to the lift, pressed the button, waited for the lift to arrive, held the door for me to enter then bowed as the doors closed. Entirely unnecessary but all part of the luxury experience.

A level of politeness is even extended to people handing out flyers (or more likely tissue packs with adverts in them) on the street. Items are offered individually and with a small bow to each passer-by. Such respect is a core part of Japanese culture and language.

Photo of Ippodo Tea, Tokyo
The friendly staff of Ippodo Tea, Tokyo

Other countries take the opposite approach.

Self-checkout, delivery by app, nobody to talk to in support, elaborate phone menu systems, pre-order and pick up without talking to anyone. These are all efficient ways to conduct low-value transactions, but they are not how we should design our software experiences.

Customer success has become a key part of software, particularly SaaS. Many companies stop at the sale – the money is in the bank! Job done? No – that’s only half the battle. Real success happens once the product is successfully deployed, and then it shifts to ongoing engagement to ensure the customer is making the most of the product.

This means the whole experience is important: from marketing (tissue-packs) initial contact (irrashaimase!), pre-sale (the readily available assistants), purchase (sitting down with tea) and post-purchase (escorted to the lift with a bow). There is often too much focus on just the initial stages without consideration for the full journey.

If you are thinking about helping the customer achieve their job to be done, the whole company needs to be geared up to not just complete the job but to ensure the entire experience is exemplary:

Complete solutions to jobs must include not only your core product or service, but also carefully designed experiences of purchase and use that overcome any obstacles a customer might face in hiring your solution and firing another. This means that ultimately all successful solutions to jobs can be thought of as services, even for product companies.

Christensen, Clayton M.. Competing Against Luck (p. 147)

Translated to real-world implementation, this means doing things like:

  • Designing the website, signup, product onboarding and product application UI and UX to be seamless, with consistency and thought into a continuous flow.
  • Engagement with the customer when they need it. Being available through phone, email, live chat or other methods so the customer can get in touch on their terms without annoying popups and spam.
  • Responsive, well-trained team members who are empowered to take decisions.
  • Minimal use of tiered support with rapid escalation to people who can actually solve your problem quickly.
  • Founders and executives using the product on a regular basis.
  • Inputting the same level of effort into the UX for the signup process as the cancellation process, and into the sales process as well as the customer success process. Consider the whole flow needs to be “concierge” level with “white glove” support.
  • Structuring executive reporting to include C-level representation of support and customer success just like sales and marketing.

Although not every product can do every one of these e.g. offering free phone support to hundreds of millions of free GMail customers may not be appropriate, the overall experience can still be aimed at a “luxury” level through attention to deal and regular reviews. Measure what matters e.g. time to resolution vs time to initial response or time to delivery vs time to shipped.

The Japanese approach to customer service might seem excessive in some cases, but it stands out. Differentiating your company based on an excessive level of customer service is hard to copy because it requires coordination across many teams and a true alignment around the customer’s job that doesn’t just end at the sale.

Customers want the high-end experience of a luxury purchase even if the product is more like a transactional self-checkout. Near zero marginal costs mean the experiences can be combined, and the little extras (like phone support) can be upgrade options whilst still providing that Japanese level experience to everyone.