Saturday, March 20, 2010

Service with a Smile and a Towel

I will never buy a pack of tissues or a washcloth again.

"Sorry to have kept you waiting." Bow. Tissue hand off. "Sorry to have inconvenienced you." Double bow. Towel hand off. Welcome to the pay scale of I'm sorries in Japan. Small mess up equals tissue pack. Big mess up upgrades the whoops! gesture to a white towel with a standard assembly line red bow wrapping. Neither of these "mistakes" by service representatives, mind you, are even what I would consider as my personal best effort. The customer service is so gold star in Japan, that their self-proclaimed worst trumps my self-proclaimed-worth-a-brag-best any day. I say this with at least an ounce of unleaded credibility since I did put some years in the food service industry State-side. On that note, anyone ever sitting at my station who didn't get a timely refill of coffee, a tissue pack is on the way. And if I brought you the wrong salad dressing on the side? I'll drop a towel in the mail.

During a recent trip back to my parents' house, I was beating jet-lag while relaxing in front of the TV with my Mom. Commenting on a commercial, she noted, "I don't understand why the post office needs to advertise. It's not like we have choices." The same rings true in Japan. They don't need to go out of their way to please me -- it's not like I have rivals to turn to. Nevertheless, I must have a room full of kickbacks (them kicking their backs in humiliation) from the Japan post. A purple ceramic replica of a retro mailbox I turned into a Christmas ornament. A plastic utensil and chopstick set with matching cup that my daughter now takes to kindergarten. Countless towels that I started using as disposable dust rags since it felt indulgent dedicating an entire linen closet to them. Every tear of sadness over Buckeye losses or joy from last minute victories over the last 15 years was wiped dry with a postal tissue. And finally, a plastic "Hello Kitty" coin bank I use to stash the thousands of yen I save on towels and tissues.

To wit, I must provide an unending challenge with my off the usual playbook tasks. I mail things in a non standard package, or to an obscure place, or make a postal order in US dollars that gives the innocent intern a year equivalent in training in one hour or less. They think that I am the victim when clearly I am requesting that they jump through barbed wire hoops for me in their cumbersome uniforms, and without the chance to limber or study up. And being made to wait? When they excuse themselves to work on my task, it's not a case of the cliche American sitcom scene highlighting an employee dashing to the water cooler to gab about the annoying, demanding customer. Rather, while I am waiting for the transaction to take place, which usually involves the representative consulting at least one other, followed by two assistants checking manuals, and another associate running to the man in back behind the big desk for some kind of authoritative nod. All the while, I am seated on a roomy vinyl chair, (which feels like a massage chair since the whole room is buzzing with productivity centered on my request) at a table, with a fresh cup of green tea. I hardly think "going postal" was coined in this environment at all, unless the phrase is an undercover code for High Tea at the Waldorf. In fact, all this waiting they think I'm bothered to do is most likely a matter of waiting for them to dig out a new I'm sorry gift from the crypt to ease my "troubles."

Once again Mom had a point, and I agree with her on this one. It's not as if I have ample mailing options outside of the post office, nor do I get that cut-throat feel that their work ethic is even slightly competition-based. Besides, any delivery service (postal, furniture, electric equipment, Sanrio Hello Kitty products) in Japan welcomes you to call for redelivery if you were out when a package arrived, furthermore, you can choose the day (even same day delivery) down to the hour of your convenience as a matter of customer right. It just has a genuine warm-fuzzy feeling about it. Besides, with Hello Kitty logo kick backs, how can anything feel impersonal? It's hard not to compare this royal treatment to the more than one time I've hung up the phone from dealing with US customer service practically in tears, wondering where my kick back tissues were during those times, while wishing there was a "press # for Japanese" option on the switchboard.

The standard white towel gift classifies as I'm sorry to ease a momentary disappointment. The I value you towels represent a slight upgrade. They involve colors, patterns and everything cute, just to maintain lifetime satisfaction. I've received happy patterned towel sets from book publishers, the hospital I chose for child birth, my insurance company, no less than three banks, and most recently, a used car dealer. The salesman handed me the large meticulously wrapped box with a Harrods by Hallmark logo on it, which apparently must mean, "when you care to thank, or apologize in advance for the very best." My American brain would wonder what I was set up for. Did he program a coolant explosion for when I pull out of the lot? Then I'd be grateful that I had these little dancing animal patterned towels with ribbons and flowers to comfort me? Well, I dropped the sceptic line of questioning 77 trees worth of tissues ago, which might have been in the late nineties. Again, Harrods has us back sipping high tea at the Waldorf as a matter of transaction course.

Electronic stores are equally as huggy feely with their apologetic handouts, but the gift items tend to be less of the cuddly category and more from the battery operated family. The key word is "family," since there is so much love conveyed in the service industry (mainly me just loving my personal 100% rate of customer satisfaction). I had no problem with the application process taking up what the representative thought to be too much time to get a cell phone. I had to make a trip back the next day based on my schedule. Somehow this sent the store a message that they should load the phone with a $50 value memory chip as an extra. Granted, he would probably have to make 10 more slip ups to justify giving me a semester worth of tutorial to get as functional as I would need to be in order to need high level memory. With low level cell-phone function ability, I don't know what I would begin to store with the multimillion mega bits, unless of course I could upload a room full of white towels.

Thus far, I've spent most of my time on the receiving end during my shopping experiences. When I'm actually on the gift purchasing side of the check out counter, the price tag blow is lessened by the free art exhibition that comes in watching the salesperson gift-wrap. One birthday growing up, I asked for 2 record albums. My brothers went in together and bought them for me. The went as far as wrapping them together in their hunter green bath towels. I was impressed. I got the thrill of opening, and the towels were clean. Standards here are a notch higher, and I'm not referring to an upgrade in my taste of music from those Men and Work and Blondie album requests, rather the concept of gift wrap. My daughter turned 5 recently, and wanted a Mell bath time doll. The store wrapped this up as if it were a toy intended for the young Princess Aiko, potentially the heiress in line for the Chrysanthemum throne. The standard gift wrap that comes with purchase is an art form. The Land of Origami. They don't use scissors in the process, it's all done with large sheets of paper that they fold into varying angles and sizes of triangles. I wrapped as a seasonal part time job over the holidays in high school, and with all of the fancy slicing machines and bow builders we used, I never came up with this clean and pressed look. Origami. I can't follow the fold A to B directions for one sheet. I'm grateful that my family is healthy, since I could never fold a paper crane, let alone one thousand cranes as the legend goes to wish someone well. Certainly my daughter will get a dose of culture shock of she visits Uncle Bill and Uncle Frank over the holidays. She'll be left to assume that Malia and Sasha get their Christmas gifts wrapped in Barack and Michelle's bath towels.

Between the errands to the post office, electronic depots and toy stores, eventually I'll need to fuel up the car. Stopping at the gas station is a treat, where even what is labeled "self serve" is would be more appropriately considered, "overflowing full service with a smile." Everybody with an employee name tag pitches in. They bow approaching the door, tap lightly on the glass, open the door and bow. Next, they proceed to ask, in a manner in which they feel they are invading my space, if I want "regular or super," and if I'll be paying with "cash or debit card." When the transaction is complete, the uniformed attendants, men in colorful jumpsuits and women in coordination jackets and mini skirts, dash out into traffic and halt oncoming so I can get on my way, with my fresh tank of friendly fun filled gas. I pull away from the station to the tune of Billy Joel's Uptown Girl in my head (only a slight upgrade from that Blondie's Heart of Glass request), vaguely recalling the pop video where Christie Brinkley turned heads, if not stopped traffic, at car service station of sorts. It's the closest I've come to being a super model even if only in my head. But as a customer in Japan? I'm convinced that 5 star and super star treatment are one in the same.

With a full tank in the Honda, the only thing left on the to do list is to refuel the tummy. Restaurant service is no exception to the 5 bell service standard. I'm not still day dreaming that I'm a rock star, or even play one on an MTV Video when I can state for the record I have never been unsatisfied leaving a restaurant in Japan. Even, or should I say especially, the service at McDonald's deserves Michelin consideration. Wait staffs at every scale of eatery follow a peppy, pre-programed script. When you order from the table, the server is repeating what you say while inputting it into a handheld computer, sending it to the kitchen instantly. When the party's order is complete, he or she repeats the order to confirm. When the food comes from the kitchen, there is a final cross check to ensure that that everything came out as ordered.

When all the hot plates and steaming bowls of food are attractively arranged at the table, the server scrams to let you enjoy your meal, only returning when paged. Yes, paged. Each table is equipped with a numbered, one touch push button bell which signals the staff when you want something, making it the customer's decision if they "left any room for dessert today," as opposed to the potentially invasive 5 minute rotation of questioning from US servers checking on their stations. Although it may sound degrading to "ring a bell for help," as if I'm snapping at my mother for a second helping, a habit that fortunately I have not adapted on my trips back to the States. But fortunately both sides maintain mutual manner of respect, which frankly, would be an aspect that my mother wouldn't mind at all.

Service in the States varies in both quality and strategy. I've heard expats claim that the Japanese service industry tends to follow a robotic script which could be considered superficial or insincere, whereas the American side prides itself on individuality with a personal touch when it comes to customer relations. Granted, I am proud of that national trait too. Working for tips, Americans are often chatty with customers, carefully building a 10 minute, empathetic relationship. I admit, I've made it work for me too, by reading up on local sports heroes and being up to date on big games scores in order to connect with the cocktail hour clientele. There is no tipping custom in Japan. It's their national pride to just do a job well. I "served" my time, and I tip well, but honestly, I am paying for consistency, not looking to have a deep exchange with whomever is waiting on me.

Yet, now that I've had some distance from it, and having spent some time on both sides of the menu, I realize I don't miss the trivial conversations. Maybe I'm the one who appears insincere, but when it comes to ordering a steak rare-medium, I prioritize knowing that the order gets to the kitchen, rather than hearing that the server's middle child Jimmy is doing better with his tutor in Algebra this week. That's nice chit chat, and although I wish Jimmy and others well, generally, customers are not going to start sending their servers kids' graduation gifts, nor are they looking to add shop attendants to their greeting card lists. I've "served" my time, and tip well (even when that rare-medium steak comes out as cold as this sounds), but honestly, in the end I am paying for consistency, and not asking to have a deep exchange with whomever is waiting on me, so a little "superficial" treatment if the service is outstanding goes a long way. Keep in mind, I have a sizable collection of heartfelt towels and tissue packs to show for it.

The cost of living is reputed to be high in Japan, and the consumer industry is no exception. Things are expensive. Luckily, it's easy to justify most purchases for the customer service experience. If that in itself isn't worth the money, then the fanfare attitude that accompanies shopping at least makes you feel like you have a cheering squad pepping you up while you part with your cash. The kid's meals at McDonald's is a Happy Set, boutiques advertise a "Happy Price," discount stores offer a "Special Price," and seasonal promotions come with a "Smile Price" tag. These are all large placards, usually pink, accessorized with hearts, inked in bold English lettering. It's a peppy time at the store, and when prices smile and sales are happy, how can you feel dissatisfied, let alone feel taken on a splurge?

I recall one winter vacation in Krabi, Thailand. We shared a tuktuk ride with an older British couple that have spent their past 40 Christmas holidays touring her islands. We were discussing the friendliness of the Thai people. The gentleman commented on the bargaining culture, "even if they're ripping you off, they're doing it with a smile on their faces so it's fine with me." It sounded like an absurd way of accepting being overcharged. But it stuck with me, since I've grown to share his sentiment. Bringing it back to first world, fixed-price customer service, I value a friendly smile, simply a good feeling, even if just for a minute. So maybe it's robotic, impersonal or expensive. I walk away having been given consistent and fair treatment, along with an occasional, even if superficial, goody bag for my "troubles?" If that's the case, allow me to freely quote the British sage who was my friend for a day, "it's fine with me." In fact, it's more than fine. It's smiley, it's special. It's happy with me. No fries with that, thank you. I'll take the towels, and meet you at the Waldorf.