A Japanese word the internet inadequately translates as “hospitality”, or “service with a spirit of wholeheartedness”.
For nearly a decade, the concept was part of my life.
While shaping the Lexus Experience, it informed our every move. From the way we welcomed guests in the showroom to how we presented them with their vehicle. Or solved their problems when things didn’t go as planned. With a smile. An unexpected touch. Treating people as if they were a valued guest in our own home.
I thought I understood.
I’d read all I could find about omotenashi and its origins. I’d given presentations about it. Experienced some of it firsthand. Even my Japanese business associates gave me an encouraging nod when they heard me speak.
Yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something essential was eluding me.
So I embarked on a three-week-long immersive journey in Japan.
The trip had multiple goals, but one of them was to experience omotenashi as closely as possible. To ‘test’ the Japanese customer experience at every commercial interaction.
To experience the real thing, I veered away from the typical tourist tracks.
Instead, we sipped from smoothies in a serene suburb of Osaka, hunted for antique fabrics in the hills around Takayama, stocked up on groceries in local markets, spent the evening in a cozy 7 seat izakaya and had an unexpected lost-and-found experience at the train stations Jomo-Kogen and Niigata.
My only reaction was an awed... "wow".
It may seem severe, but the meticulousness, unparalleled friendliness, consideration, and genuine enthusiasm that characterizes almost every customer interaction makes western customer experience practices look elementary. At one point, I even described us as 'barbarians'.
My son phrased it more eloquently: “Compared to home, it feels like here staff really care.”
His words touched upon the core of omotenashi
Like ours, the Japanese work culture has its challenges. Odd processes. Arbitrary rules. Complex workplace relationships. Too many hours.
However, in terms of customer experience, Japanese employers seem to get one thing right. They get their people to truly care about the customer. The focus isn't "what is the minimum I need to do to satisfy this person", but "what else can I do to ensure this person leaves with a smile on their face".
Which made me realise, more than ever, that omotenashi isn’t about the mechanics.
Sure, the meticulous attention to detail. The personalisation. The gratitude. The pro-activeness, … All these elements matter.
But they all stem from truly caring for your guests and customers
This realisation invigorates me.
It reinforces my belief that customer-centric tools only hold value when we approach our interactions, both human and digital, from a place of empathy and care. To quote Fred Reichheld, we must "treat customers as we would want our loved ones to be treated".
So here’s my challenge to you.
When your executive team has its next customer meeting, set aside the usual metrics, analytics, and journey maps. Instead, ask yourselves, and whoever is presenting how the plans devise will ignite a deeper level of ‘care’ within your people. Not for customers as walking wallets, but as fellow human beings whose life is to be made a little more enjoyable.
It may spark uncomfortable conversations.
When stripping away the customer, digital and design jargon, you’re talking values, emotions and beliefs. Of truly addressing what’s wrong in your business. Of doing the right thing, rather than the one which is convenient, strokes your ego or makes you look good.
I assure you that the effort is worth it …
That is, if you care deeply enough yourself.
PS. A very serious suggestion: if you want to truly grasp what I’m talking about, go to Japan yourself. If you need a guide, talk to Jonas Elslander. He’s got the best. If you wish, I’m happy to hook you up.
Alain Thys is an experience architect who helps organisations drive profit and transformation through experience.