I have been in Japan now for almost five months. I was going to say that it is an “amazing country”, but that would be wrong for me to say. I have only seen Tokyo and as such I can only really say that it is an amazing city, in what appears to be an amazing country.
One of the most extraordinary things for me is the pride that people take in their work. From the guy who stands on the side of road works directing traffic, to the waiter bringing you water at dinner. Everything is done with the care and attention that really can only come with taking genuine pride in how people see you doing your job.
Today I fly back to my home town for a quick visit with family. This in and of itself has nothing to do with service (that said, my mother does look after me very very well – cheers Mum) but it is the protagonist for this story.
The villain of this tale is Qantas. They are the sole remaining serious Australian air carrier and they know it. And they like to treat their customers with the contempt that a company in such a position can.
I originally purchased my flight over here some time ago. At that time – I purchased a fair with a flexible return flight. I did everything I could to purchase a fair actually on Qantas (as opposed to a code share flight). In the end – i find it is a code share flight after all – operated by JAL, and because Japan has not caught up with eTicketing yet, I have a paper ticket.
I thought my only problem with a paper ticket would be my amazing ability to loose something as soon as I know how important it is. This is not the only problem. Another quite serious issue is the change of any flight details on that ticket require it to be reissued. That does not sound too difficult until you find out that this can only be done in two locations all across Japan. One is here in Tokyo, the other in Osaka. Surprisingly, it can not even be done at the airport.
Over the months here I have had to change the return flight a couple of times and each of these changes has been met with little difficulties. The last change resulted in the phone agents flat out refusal to make any changes because I did not have a ticket reissued for the prior alteration. Without going in to too much detail – her information was contrary to what I had been told when making the prior change, and after a lot of arguing with different people – they eventually allowed me to return home on a different date.
So here I sit in the airport on that different date. In the JAL lounge, enjoying coffee from an automatic coffee machine. I am only here though because of Japanese customer service, and with no help from Qantas in Australia at all.
On arriving at Narita Terminal 2 today I tried to find a Qantas information counter, of which it turns out there are none. I asked a security person where anything to do with Qantas was – and they pointed me to some check in counters. They were not yet opened, so I joined the line.
I was now getting very nervous, and as Qantas does not publish an internationally accessible number on their cards I called my parents and asked them to call Qantas for me to find a number I could call from Japan.
I waited patiently in the line, begging to stress more and more as the minutes passed. Once my stress level was sufficiently high from my own making up scenarios in my head, my father called me back. He said that he had spoken with the Qantas staff and that there was nothing that could be done. I would have to go to the Qantas office in Tokyo city, which they acknowledged was not even open today, and get my ticket re-issued before I could check in. They said that I could try and see how I went – but they was nothing they were willing to do to help out.
That did not relax me.
Finally the line opened, I went straight to the information section of the counters and was greeted with a smile. I said hello in my very poor Japanese, apologised a few times (in advance) and then started to hold out my ticket. The girl took it and looked at it as I explained that I had changed my flight and needed it re-issued.
She looked around and got the attention of somebody that I assume was a supervisor. They discussed me for a little while, mentioning the Qantas Club (of which I am a member) several times. There was some typing at her terminal, and then she looked up at me.
I was just getting ready with an onslaught of all sorts of things to argue my way onto the plane. I got very nervous as she started to get all of my paper work in one pile to hand back to me, I was expecting her to say there was nothing she could do. She handed my bundle to me and said that everything was in order, and I could proceed to any of the open check in counters. She wished me a pleasant flight.
I was stunned. I took the paper work, thanked her in both English and Japanese several times, bowed several times and then walked in a daze to the check in counter. I handed the check in assistant my paper work, she looked over it and I explained what had just happened. She again thanked me, and then asked where I wanted to sit on the aircraft. My auto-pilot kicked in and I asked for an exit seat. The second I had said it I reeled. I thought that i had used all my karma credits up in actually getting on to the plane. It turned out that my request was not a problem, and I was shortly on my way to the Lounge to relax with a coffee and some biscuits.
Here I sit, still a little amazed about how easy it ended up being. All that said though – it does highlight the difference between what Australia classes as customer service (allow me to paraphrase the Qantas staff on the phone here)…
“No, piss off. We can not be stuffed helping you…”
…versus the Japanese…
“Thank-you, enjoy your flight.”
I used to think that bringing in a system of tipping in Australia would help to improve what can easily be described as some of the worst customer service in the world. But that is not the case. You do not tip in Japan, to some it is even considered offensive that you would try and “bribe” them to perform better at their work. The solution is to have people take pride in what they do, and that is not going to happen over night, or probably ever. So I need to sit back, relax and enjoy the crap customer service I guess.