japan customer service phrases

7 Japanese Words That Teach Great Customer Service

Even if you’ve never been in Japan, you’ve probably heard of their extremely polished customer service. Although your mileage may vary, most people tend to agree that it’s not just good country PR; Japanese customer service really is that good.

But what makes it special? Is it just the difference in culture? More importantly, can it be taught?

We’ve prepared 7 Japanese customer service phrases that could shed light on what makes service in The Land of the Rising Sun so amazing.

Even if you don’t speak a word of Japanese, this will be a useful guide. Let’s dive right in!


Omotenashi

japanese customer service phrases

What it means: “Hospitality”


Our first, and perhaps the most important, Japanese word of the day is omotenashi.

Some of you may even remember it from the speech by Christel Takigawa, the Tokyo 20202 Bid Ambassador, at the International Olympic Committee:

Although translated to as “hospitality”, the better definition would be “preventative hospitality”. Omotenashi describes satisfying others’ need without being asked to do so.

People unfamiliar with Japan’s hospitality would often talk about their surprise when hotel staff would not only hold the taxi door open for them but also unbuckle their seat belt.

(All while bowing extensively, of course.)

That’s omotenashi in a nutshell: doing everything in your power to provide superior experience.


The sensei says:

“There are no things small enough if they result in greater experience for a customer.”


Keigo

japanese customer service philosop

What it means: “Respectful language”


Japan is known for its courteous clerks and servers, and keigo is one of the main reasons why. Keigo is the politest form of Japanese that includes words, phrases and conjugations reserved for formal or official situations.

Sentences spoken in Japanese keigo are usually longer than ordinary phrases. When speaking keigo, you would typically refer to yourself in humble terms and save all the honorifics for the person you’re talking to.

Respect and humility are ingrained in Japanese culture, and they always go hand in hand. Staff in Japan are trained to repeat extremely respectful phrases to greet each customer and handle common situations.


The sensei says:

“Polite, respectful language is an expected part of good customer service.”


Genki

japanese customer service phrases

What it means: “Energetic” / “Lively”


The concept of genki is used to describe great enthusiasm and can-do attitude. This overwhelmingly cheerful attitude may even catch you by surprise when you’re in Japan.

Do not be alarmed by how loud you’re being greeted in a Japanese store or restaurant. (Sometimes staff would even use megaphones!) They’re not angry at you; they’re simply showing you their genki spirit.

Fast service is linked to the concept of genki. When in Japan, you can even see staff running at times.


The sensei says:

“Put a smile on and stay positive when serving a customer.”


Sumimasen

japanese customer service phrases

What it means: “Sorry” / “Excuse me”


In a culture as polite as Japan’s, be prepared to hear this word often — sumimasen. This is how a customer in Japan would try to grab a clerk’s attention.

Now, this doesn’t sound all that different from what we’re used to. “Excuse me” is a common way to start a conversation with staff, no matter where you are. What’s the point of including it here, then?

In Japan, as soon as you request help by saying sumimasen, any employee closest to you may take over the responsibility of serving you. In Japan, there’s almost no such thing as this-wasn’t-in-my-contract attitude. If you are in a restaurant and there are no waiters nearby, a chef or kitchen staff will be happy to take your order.

While we at Qminder do not condone burdening employees with additional responsibilities at no extra pay, there is definitely a good lesson here.


The sensei says:

“Good customer service is a collaborative endeavor. Every employee plays their part.”


Ichi-go ichi-e

japanese customer service phrases

What it means: “One time, one meeting” / “Once-in-a-lifetime encounter”


Ichi-go ichi-e is a philosophical concept that describes treasuring the transient nature of a moment. Originally associated with the Japanese tea ceremony, ichi-go ichi-e dictates that you need to cherish each encounter as if it were the only one in your lifetime.

Basically, you will never get another chance to experience a specific scenario. There is no Ctrl+Z in real life.

Reserved to describe a moment to be cherished, this idiom can be applied to customer service, too. In this context, the closest English alternative would be, “First impressions matter”.


The sensei says:

“Treat each new customer encounter like it’s the first and the last chance to delight them.”


Ganbatte

japanese customer service phrases

What it means: “Do your best”


In situations where we wish someone good luck — say, before they take an exam — a Japanese person would say, “Ganbatte!”

Ganbatte has nothing to do with luck and everything with giving your all. On its own, ganbatte serves as encouragement, but it’s not just a common expression you might hear from locals.

It’s a perfect descriptor of Japan’s view on perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, and the concept of never giving up. The ganbatte spirit is present in customer service situations, too.

Dealing with difficult customers and delivering on high expectations is a matter of trusting your abilities and giving it your A game. As long as you don’t back down from difficulties, you will succeed.


The sensei says:

“No matter how high the odds are stacked against you, you must always give it your all.”


Omakase

japanese customer service phrases

What it means: “I’ll leave it up to you”


Lastly, there’s omakase. It is a tradition of letting the restaurant recommend a course meal to you at a mystery price. To a Westerner, this may sound extremely sketchy, but it is based solely on trust. As we’ve learned, trust is the cornerstone of everything in Japan.

Customers who order omakase expect the chef to surprise them with their selection of dishes. It is a gamble, sure, but it usually results in getting something at a lower cost than when ordered a la carte.

Plus, you get something that you may have otherwise never even think of ordering. Now that sounds exciting!


The sensei says:

“Always try to delight your customers in a surprising way.”


The dark side of Japanese customer service

Don’t be fooled by this feel-good article. Customer service in Japan, though a thing of beauty at a glance, isn’t all fun and games.

When American Express International conducted a survey to understand the difference in the attitude of customers around the world, the statement they proposed was, “I take my business elsewhere after one bad service experience.”

Now, customers in most countries were at about the same level of giving leniency. You can probably guess which one country sticks out like a middle finger.

customer service around the world

That’s right, Japanese customers aren’t playing around. Over half of consumers in Japan are ready to abandon the service provider altogether after a single unsatisfactory experience.

There will be no complaints or arguments. The minute you fail to meet your Japanese customers’ expectations, they walk out the door.

(Ironically, the phrase “French leave” applies to the Japanese more than the French.)

Is it surprising, then, that Japanese service providers are willing to go the extra mile (more like ten extra miles) for their customers?

That’s why employee burnout is not only prevalent in Japan but, at this point, is close to being a national emergency.

Speaking of which, here’s your bonus word of the day: otsukare, translated to as “fatigue”.

In Japan, working yourself to exhaustion is considered respectable. In fact, the nicest thing you can say to a Japanese person sounds like a personal insult everywhere else — otsukaresama deshita (“You look tired”).

If left unsupervised, otsukare may result in karōshi (“overwork death”) — sudden occupational mortality, usually in the form of a heart attack or starvation. Although karōshi is used to describe Japan’s situation, this phenomenon is sadly becoming widespread in other parts of the world, too.


The sensei says:

“Great customer service is important, but not at the expense of your employees.”


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