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    Culture Change In Japan With Total Customer Focus


    We are often asked if Total Customer Focus (TCF) works in other cultures, particularly in Asia where attitudes towards customer service, communication styles and cultural styles in general can be significantly different than in the West. It’s a great question, of course. The short answer is definitely yes. Despite differences in attitudes towards customers and customer service in countries like Japan, the core concepts, skills, tools and behaviors of TCF work equally well. According to Global Partners Japanese Associate Michiaki Lee, there are several areas where TCF can be especially effective in Japan.

    A different relationship between customers and suppliers

    In Japanese cultures, satisfying the customer emphasizes immediate response when the customer calls. The customer's power is significantly greater than the supplier's. Suppliers are expected to show "can-do" attitude and seldom say no. When they need to say no, suppliers should be logical, soft, and indirect.

    A Total Customer Focus tool that Japanese participants find useful in dealing with this 'Power Distance' is the Reasonable Possible Matrix. This tool can be easily used to identify the impossible/unreasonable zone without confrontation from the customer.

    Organizations can be more hierarchical and complex

    A strong group orientation in Asian countries such as Japan often creates a silo organization. In large companies, information is not shared across different departments.

    For example, operations people and procurement don't share the same information. When procurement talks to the supplier, their concern is only cost and never about quality and production efficiency. Different people have different interests - and sometimes information is incorrect.

    To be effective in this environment, suppliers need to communicate with customers by multiple touch-points to verify the truth and confirm hidden 'below the waterline' issues.  

    Uncertainty avoidance further complicates interactions with customers and slows decision-making. Japanese business culture is very risk-averse. Customers are desperate to avoid failure and as a result, they usually require many reports in the short term before going forward with an action or decision. Suppliers need to clearly demonstrate the process they will use to solve problems with milestones that are short enough to provide reassurance that the solution will be closely watched. The TCF firefighting communication tool TAUC (Transparency; Accuracy; Urgency; Control) is very helpful to service engineers who find themselves in a situation where the customer is very nervous about the problem and the perceived risk of the proposed solution.

    Ask Informed Open Questions to avoid embarrassing the customer or you

    In Japan, asking questions can be dangerous if the question could make the customer look foolish, for example if the customer does not know the answer. Or the question could make the supplier look foolish if the customer thinks the supplier should know the answer. TCF teaches participants to ask ‘Informed’ open questions. These are open questions that, a) the customer would not expect the asker to know the answer to and b) are clear why the question is being asked. One of our favorite Informed Open Questions is, "What was happening when the machine (system, software, etc.) went down." Generally, the service supplier would not be expected to know what was happening at that moment because he/she wasn’t there. And the service person needs to know exactly what was happening at that moment in order to figure out what the potential problem might be. Informed Open Questions work especially well in Japan.

    Building rapport is also critical for effective communication in countries like Japan. Japanese people often don't express 100% of what they are thinking. When people tend to be more closed, it is difficult to discuss their 'below the waterline' issues. Building a good rapport is very important before asking many questions. Some informal setting, such as lunch, a coffee meeting or small private conversation will help. It may take more time depending on personality, but it is crucial for an open dialogue.


    Total Customer Focus has been a global program since we started implementing it with clients in 2010. More than half of the technical service and support people who have participated in TCF programs are based in Asia and India. TCF is available in Asian languages and is typically delivered by locally based facilitators. To learn more about Global Partners' capabilities in Asia contact Global Partners today.

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    Written by Michiaki Lee

    In Singapore and Japan, Michiaki Lee designs and provides leadership development programs and corporate training to multinational companies. As a trainer/facilitator, he has facilitated cross-cultural management workshops for Japanese MNCs in the Southeast Asia region. He is a native speaker in Japanese and also speaks English.

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