Omotenashi: The Japanese Art of Exceptional Experiences

It is no secret that the Japanese have excelled at transforming common items into something that looks and functions masterfully, or turning a seemingly mundane task into an exceptional experience. For centuries, Japan has designed services and products with the human at the center.

These are extensions of a culture in which products and services are anticipated well before a guest or customer sets foot into a store, hotel or business—maybe even before a traveler even sets foot on the Land of the Rising Sun.

As a child, I often would go back home to spend my summers in Tokyo with my grandparents. A memory that stays with me are the trips we would take to Kamakura and Hayama. Hotels and ryokans treated every guest like a VIP—no matter if this was the first stay or the 100th stay. The attentive staff was neither pushy nor clingy nor obtrusive. It was a perfect balance. Everything from the first warm greeting to the way meals were prepared and served was an experience, executed smoothly and with such precision it never felt forced or unnatural. Moreover, the hotels had this uncanny sense of knowing what the guests needed. Every time I left, I couldn’t wait to come back again.

This value in providing a personalized, exceptional experience is deeply rooted in our culture and is known as omotenashi (pronounced: ohmo-te-nashe). Hard to define, it is often translated in western cultures too simply as “hospitality.” However, it is much more; it encompasses how people—guests and customers—are viewed and treated.

A deeply engrained cultural principle and philosophy, omotenashi is not taught. Instead it’s something pre-programmed into every Japanese person and passed down from generation to generation. It is a subtle, invisible aspect of Japanese culture. It is a seamless marriage of human and business practices.

What elements of the spirit of omotenashi can we apply to the customer experience and what are the results?

  • Empathy: Omotenashi is grounded in mutual respect and consideration for the person, such as the respect that a customer or guest shows by spending his or her time at your place of business over others. It extends beyond the “customer is always right” philosophy. It places you in your customer’s shoes—ensuring customer expectations are met by building the services and products from their perspective and requiring them to exert as little effort as possible.
  • Anticipation: The omotenashi philosophy pays very close attention to details to gain a deep understanding of the customer, so that you not only meet their expectations but also anticipate their needs. It is an understanding that there are no tasks too small or menial if it provides the customer or guest a great experience. It is a knowledge that what you do—even if you are not customer-facing—will always affect the customer. Thus, you put 100% of your effort into creating an exceptional experience.
  • Authenticity: A key part of the philosophy is gratitude, which brings warmth and authenticity to the entire experience and every encounter. It is an appreciation that the individual chose to spend their time with that business. And it values the individual as an integral part of the organization’s growth.

This seems like a lot of effort for companies. So, what are the results?

  • Trust: The selfless approach to providing services to guests—without any expectations—creates an intimate environment of trust. For any business relationship to thrive and grow, there must be trust. Businesses and brands that operate with omotenashi principles have built a level of trust with their customers. It is the confidence a customer has that they you will provide a service or product consistently to meet, or often exceed, their expectations.
  • Advocacy: Omotenashi principles are differentiators in building loyalty and advocacy. Like all things Japanese, this is subtle. It is not an overt push for you to pledge your loyalty to one business or brand. But, if done properly, the results of a business working under the philosophy of omotenashi are that they organically create customers for a lifetime. More importantly, these lifetime customers cannot wait to evangelize about you and your company.

At the end of the day, the customer can choose to do business with anyone. However, would you rather spend your money where you find everything—even the most obvious and simple requests—take huge efforts? Or would you rather spend it somewhere that your needs are anticipated, your time is respected and you are genuinely appreciated?

Don’t take my word for it. To truly understand it, go experience it.

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