Earlier this year I was lucky enough to visit Kyoto in Japan for a holiday. Being a customer experience specialist means never quite leaving work behind, even on holiday, and I wanted to find out whether the customer experience in Kyoto would be different to anywhere else.

Kyoto is a wonderful place. Although much less densely populated than Tokyo or London, it attracts around 50 million tourists each year. Which makes it a busy and bustling city.

The main attractions for me were culture, history and food (not necessarily in that order!). I was expecting a relatively formal atmosphere, so I was not prepared for the warmth of the Japanese omotenashi (hospitality) which completely bowls you over. It doesn’t matter where you go, you will find people are consistently welcoming towards you, in a way which feels very genuine.

So, was the customer experience different in Japan? Absolutely. A client recently introduced me to the phrase ‘a sense of place’. Japan has a definite sense of place, and character. Apart from the fact that almost everything we saw was stunningly beautiful, the experience was very distinctive.

Here are the top five ways in which I noticed the difference:

1. Finding your way

I can speak a few words of Japanese, but I can’t read written characters at all. Despite this I could easily find my way around the city, and public transport. You don’t necessarily see lots of signs everywhere; the cues are usually more visual. You might find the dishes from a restaurant menu presented in the window which you can use to communicate your order (nearby Osaka is known for its replica food industry!). Or coloured markers on the floor to help you find your way through large buildings, or on station platforms to tell you exactly where to stand to be next to the door for your train carriage.

2. Pride and purpose

The people you meet and the things you see happening around you show how proud people are of their city. They want you to enjoy it too. The whole time I was there I never saw a customer survey used as a replacement for listening and interacting. There’s was no need, people talk to their customers. From the gentleman at the temple who keeps the incense burning, to the school children who chat with you to practice their English and take selfies, to the taxi driver who points out interesting sights and places along the route. Everything is carried out with purpose, and you are made to feel very much a part of that purpose.

3. Queueing

Queues are a common sight all around the world – where there are people there are queues. But queuing in Japan feels less stressful. We visited a tiny ramen restaurant one evening. We took the long line of people waiting to go in as a sign that the food was going to be amazing. But we soon noticed the queue was being worked. One of the waiting staff, dressed in a white apron, white wellies and bandana, popped out every few minutes with menus, taking orders at the front of the queue and giving waiting time estimates at the middle and back. He didn’t lose a single customer. Elsewhere in the city, at a large car park, we spotted parking attendants decked out in smart uniforms, with LED sashes and glowing sticks directing traffic. They were doing a wonderful job of keeping people moving and make effective use of the space. This was all done in a respectful way; we never felt herded.

4. Cleanliness

Kyoto is a very clean city. Even in the busiest areas of town, the paving is so clean it looks as though it has just been laid. Not so much as a leaf in sight, even in the middle of Autumn! And we rarely saw a litter bin the whole time we were there. So, what’s going on? First of all, people take responsibility for their litter – they take it home. Recycling rates in Japan are very high, with c. 80% of waste being recycled. It’s not unusual to see a sign in a food outlet inviting you to bring your rubbish back so they can dispose of it for you. We tried this, and the reception was extremely friendly with lots of bowing. We felt very pleased with ourselves! Then there was the gentleman I encountered on his bike at 5am, delivering post. He was dressed in full uniform with white gloves and peaked cap, and at the same time as delivering letters he was picking up stray leaves and the occasional piece of litter!

5. Calm and order

Cities are noisy. Traffic crossings, announcements, and if you are really unlucky, muzac. Like most other aspects of life in Kyoto, this urban noise appears to have been thought about very carefully. Pedestrian crossings don’t beep, they chirrup. While waiting for a train you will hear birdsong. Unobtrusive, but very calming. Each train line has its own ‘jingle’ to announce arriving and departing trains (train buffs please note there are whole websites devoted to this). On trains and buses, announcements are spoken by a soothing voice. Needless to say, the trains are also on time, spotlessly clean and good value. Apologies to my fellow, long-suffering Southern passengers – but it is at least comforting to know there is hope!

When we arrived home, there was an unexpected surprise waiting. Not from Japan – much closer to home. Our travel insurer (CoverForYou) sent us this text. A nice touch to round off our holiday. I hadn’t used them before, and didn’t need to claim, but I have just moved my annual business travel policy to them.

Like me, Beth is a Customer Experience Specialist and proud to be a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP).
Beth started out in internal communications, journalism, and knowledge management. It was during her time working in a commercial team in financial services that she first spotted the link between Customer Experience Management and business results – she never looked back.

She has worked with businesses of all shapes and sizes, helping them to understand, and think like, customers. I am delighted that she is a part of the growing Customer Experience Consultancy family! Reach out to Beth at beth@ijgolding.com