The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Many years ago, Jan Carlzon published a tremendous guide to customer service. He had the job of turning around Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and captured that experience in his book Moments of Truth. I was reminded of Carlzon’s insights recently when I was checking into my hotel in Singapore.

While going through the check-in process at the hotel, a waiter from the adjoining restaurant approached me bearing an ice-cold glass of freshly squeezed juice. Singapore is very humid and, trust me, that beverage went down nicely. I thought, this is really well designed customer service by this hotel.

One of Carlzon’s observations about customer service is the importance of consistency of delivery. For example, visualize the telephone receptionist answering your call in a pleasant and helpful manner. You are uplifted by your exposure to the brand. But when your call is transferred, the next staff member is grumpy and unfriendly. Now both your mood and positive impression plummet. You are suddenly irritated by this company. They have just damaged their brand with an inability to sustain good service across just two touch points.

So back to my story. As I get to my room, in good spirits after receiving ice-cold juice, I find out the television isn’t working. After a forensic search for the cause—including a few harsh words with the television controller—I discover that the power is not on. There is a card slot next to the door that initiates the power supply to the room. Actually, I encountered the same system in the elevator when I unsuccessfully tried to select my floor. I worked it all out eventually, but the thought occurred to me that the pleasant young woman who checked me in had failed to mention these two facts. Sustainability of good service has to be the goal if you want to protect or grow your brand.

Let me mention a customer service breakdown that I particularly dislike here in Japan. You call just about any organization, get a very flat voice answering the phone, and they say in Japanese “XYZ company here.” You ask to speak with Ms. Suzuki, that very excellent and impressive member of staff whom you met recently. The flat uninterested voice tells you that she “is not at her desk right now.” And then? Stone-cold silence.

The “may I take down your name and phone number so that she can call you back” bit is rarely offered. Instead, you are left hanging. The inference from the silence is that, if Ms. Suzuki is not around, it’s your problem and you should call back later rather than expect a return call. Again, to Carlzon’s point, these inconsistencies in customer service directly damage the brand.

When I had previously met Ms. Suzuki, I was impressed by her and had a good impression of the whole organization. The person taking the call has just put that positive image to the sword.

When you are the leader of your company, you presume that everyone “gets it” about representing the brand and delivers consistent levels of service. You expect that your whole team is supporting the marketing department’s efforts to create an excellent image. After all, you have been spending truckloads of money on that marketing effort, haven’t you?

But are all your staff supporting the effort to build the brand? Perhaps they have forgotten what you have said in the past, or they are a new hire who wasn’t briefed properly.

Leaders, we should all sit down and draw the spider’s web of how customers interact with us and who they interact with. We should expect that nobody gets it and determine that we have to tell them all again and again and again. So how about this for a starter?

  1. Answer the phone with a pleasant voice, be helpful, and offer your name first so the customer won’t be embarrassed that they didn’t recognize your voice.
  2. If the person they are calling isn’t there, proactively offer to ensure they get a call back as soon as possible.
  3. End by thanking them for their call and, again, leave your name—in case there is anything further the caller may need.

First impressions count, but so do all the follow-up impressions if we want to build a sustainable, consistently positive image with our customers. Consistency of good experiences doesn’t happen automatically. We have to look again at all of the touch points we have with customers and ensure that everyone understands their place in maintaining the excellent brand we have built.

It is quite interesting that our clients come from just about every industry you can imagine, but we notice there are some common requests for improving team performance.

The four most popular areas are leadership, communications, sales, and presentations. Although we started in New York in 1912, in Japan we deliver 90% of our training in Japanese. Also, having launched here in Tokyo 53 years ago, we have been able to master how to bring to Japan global best practices, together with the required degree of localization. You’re the boss. Are you fully satisfied with your current results? If not, and you would like to see higher skill and performance levels in your organization (through training delivered in Japanese or English), drop us a brief note at

First impressions count, but so do all the follow-up impressions