Those of you who have spent time in Japan might have noticed that interactions with service staff there play out in a carefully choreographed blend of ceremony and gratitude, regardless of whether you’re buying a coffee at the corner shop or a bag at a local boutique. The paradox is that this delightful customer experience occurs despite most companies in Japan lacking the accountability, rigor, and coordination that characterize leading CX global organizations.

What's interesting though, is that a high level of empathy enables Japanese organizations to overcome their CX maturity shortcomings by delivering an exquisite level of hospitality service. This empathy-focused culture is rooted in what the Japanese call omotenashi, a spirit of unobtrusive and respectful approach to guests that anticipates their needs, bestows respect, and surprises them at every point in the service scenario.

One misconception is that this exquisite hospitality is solely and inherently connected to Japanese culture and cannot be easily replicated elsewhere. Parents and schools inculcate an awareness of and sense of empathy toward others into Japanese children from an early age, and this ethos permeates Japanese society. However, as Charles Darwin pointed out in his book, The Descent of Man, everyone is born with an intrinsic level of empathy that remains present to varying degrees in all of us. Companies should recognize that omotenashi can take root anywhere and can begin planting the seeds of an omotenashi culture in their companies by codifying CX empathy programs that, in principle:

  • Base interactions on a relationship of equals. Contrary to Western cultures, which place the host or person serving the guest below the customer, omotenashi is a nondominant relationship. Even though the customer is respected as a god, omotenashi is practiced as if server and customer are on the same level — almost like family friends.
  • Anticipate what is best for the guest before they ask for it. Proactively planning for what customers might want or need affords the opportunity to surprise and delight them with a solution or signature moment before they even realize they need something. Omotenashi emphasizes utmost consideration of others, taking into account multiple potential outcomes to help customers feel comfortable and at ease.
  • Authentic, from-the-heart service isn’t scripted. In customer service scenarios that follow a prescribed series of actions, true omotenashi service offers service staff the flexibility to imbue the experience with a personal touch.

No matter what market you operate in, you can democratize and learn elements of this service culture piecemeal. Take a look at my report to see actual examples in practice and recommendations of how to bring this to life in your organization.