Saturday, May 7, 2011

"Sumimasen" What to Do in Japan if a Customer Complains

"Sumimasen" in Japanese means "sorry" or "excuse me." Sometimes, depending on context, it can mean "thank you" (if someone is, say, kind to you or does you a favor).
MAC DAVIS - IT'S HARD TO BE HUMBLE
If you ever come to Japan and you only learn one word, "Sumimasen" is it. It is so versatile. Some of the big lessons of Japan and living in this country is that Japanese will teach you patience. It will will also teach you to be humble. It will also teach you to say, "Sorry"... Well, specifically, "Sumimasen".


In Japan the customer is "God!"


Foreigners who do not learn these things quickly don't do well here. They don't last. For nearly three decades I've seen foreigners come and go and the ones who go the fastest fail to learn the simple lesson of "Sumimasen".


In a previous post I spoke about how, in Japan, the customer is god. That's right. In this country, even when the customer is wrong, the customer is still the customer and is god.


If you are ever here working for a Japanese company or with the Japanese and there's some sort of problem - even if it is not your fault - the first thing out of your mouth should always be "Sumimasen".


Sumimasen and a sincere attitude and bowing of ones head shows that you know your place in society and that you respect people.


I've seen many cases where there was some sort of problem at work. I can't remember exactly what those problems were or whose fault they were. It doesn't matter. But when the foreign staff were summoned by the Japanese management or the Japanese client or customer, I told that foreigner, "No matter what, the first thing you do when you walk into that room is to bow your head and say, 'Sumimasen'." I've even pleaded with some foreign staff to do this. Most wouldn't have it. They wouldn't listen.


"I'm not going to apologize, Mike. I didn't do anything wrong."


"No one is saying you did anything wrong. You must must say 'sumimasen' to show that you are sorry for this regrettable situation." 


They wouldn't do it. Fools. Why wouldn't you say 'sorry'? When, for example, you friend's mom or dad passes away, you say 'I'm sorry' even though you had nothing to do with it, right? Why can't you say 'sorry' in this case?


They wouldn't do it. They had a attitude of superiority. They didn't bow their heads.


They lost their jobs. 


They thought they were God's gift to the business world, but they got their butts out of a job. It happened every time. 


Once again, in Japan, the customer is god. The person paying the money is lord. If that person who is paying the money - be they a customer or your boss - wants to complain or has a claim against you or your company, even if it isn't your fault, you must do these things:


1) Say "Sumimasen" repeatedly.
2) Bow your head and repeat #1.
3) You better show a sincere attitude that you are listening and not just acting like you are listening.
4) This is an important one! No matter how upset the client, customer or your boss gets, no matter how much they shout or raise their voice, you had better damn well not talk back. Talking back to the person who is paying the money is a cardinal sin. Talking back is called "iikaeshi" and that is absolutely verboten! No matter how upset they get, you follow rule #2.


Recently, I was at a meeting where a customer got very hot under the collar and began to raise their voice. It was a difficult situation. It got even worse when the person who was the receiver of monies from this customer committed iikaeshi and talked back. That employee said, "Don't shout at me!"


No! No! No! That only escalated the situation and made a situation whereby that employee had just put their neck out asking to get terminated.


Never! But never talk back to an angry customer in Japan. That is behavior that is not tolerated in this country. That kind of behavior is asking to get fired.


When the customer is mad and yelling, the proper reaction is to respond in a quiet voice, "Sumimasen! Sumimasen!" This response will diffuse the situation and then the customer must be allowed to blow off steam. A demur attitude and a repetition of 'sumimasen' (along with a ton of bowing and a humble and sincere attitude) will show professionalism and it will show that customer that here is a person who respects the customer and, in return, deserves to be respected.


Any other response besides the above shows the customer an amateurish and low level employee that is not deserving of higher pay nor a higher position. If that employee commits such a sin repeatedly, that employee only deserves a pink slip.


"Sumimasen" not only means, "Excuse me," "I'm sorry" and "Thank you" it is also a word that works like just like magic.


UPDATE: "Boo" Has commented below about this funny parody about apologizing. As Boo has commented, it has just enough truth in it to be hilarious. Watch!
This comes from an entire series of funny skits made by younger Japanese people that make a mockery of ancient Japanese traditions and culture that was featured on a very famous Japanese TV show. (PS: At least some people can see the humor of their situation. A commentator below writes, "So the implication here is that in order for one to get ahead, he or she must grovel in humiliation. What exactly does this suggest about the culture?" Isn't that a scream also? I'll bet you a donut that this foolish remark comes from a conceited American who never once stops to thinks, "Gee? Mine is that a culture of fighting and insisting on always being right (or going to court for spilling McDonald's coffee on one's lap), or constant war and killing millions of people around the world....What exactly does this suggest about the culture?" You would never see on American TV a parody along these lines being critical of the way Americans swagger and act. Americans wouldn't tolerate it.


なぜですか?アメリカ人のけつの穴はちっちゃいから ;)


Too funny.
    

12 comments:

Nick said...

I, like you am half Japanese. I have no idea why gaijins insist on not listening to people native to the culture. I often find myself frustrated when trying to help people out, often to them not listening!

boo said...

Back in my dissipated youth, when I was working at a Japanese automotive manufacturer, they tried for a while to export this attitude to US car dealerships, and finally gave up when enough Americans told them that in this situation, even something as mild as the English equivalent of sumimasen could be accepted in court as an admission of guilt.

boo said...

sorry, I mean "liability", not guilt.

Marc Sheffner said...

Interesting post. The "sumimasen" is a word that is vital in a hierarchical society. As boo rightly pointed out above, because of this, it won't travel. As Mac Davis sings, it's hard to be humble in any culture, but it's especially hard for Westerners in Japan because of their cultural values and upbringing. I recall something told to me by a Japanese-American woman from Hawaii who had a Japanese mother and American father. When the father bawled her out, she had to look him right in the eye; when her mother bawled her out she had to look at the floor. Looking her mother in the eye in that situation would have been suicidal! Lucky that humans can be flexible, eh!

Marc Sheffner said...

Even tho I've been here even longer than Mike, I haven't been really tested the way he has, and I'm not sure I would be able to do the right thing if I was. I once got kind of chewed out by my boss. While I wasn't directly rude to him, I was thinking so loud, I'm sure he heard it!

I once attended a surreal meeting called by my university president (not the present one) to discuss ways of recruiting more students. One prof suggested TV advertisements. The president bawled him out. Way to go, boss. That's the way to brainstorm and get the creative juices flowing. The prof had the last laugh, tho: the prez left after his term ran out, and a few years later the uni ran TV adverts.
The customer may be god, but your boss ain't always right.

Anonymous said...

What's most amusing about the culture of Sumimasen is that the Japanese will apologize for just about anything but its war crimes in Manchuria, Korea, and elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

So the implication here is that in order for one to get ahead, he or she must grovel in humiliation.

What exactly does this suggest about the culture?

boo said...

A visual "How-to" from Youtube. This series is hilarious because just enough of it is true.
http://goo.gl/m6MxO

mikeintokyorogers said...

To: Anonymous 1) Japan has apologized many times for the past and even signed peace treaties with those nations (excepting North Korea). Get you facts straight.
2) Anonymous 2 writes: "So the implication here is that in order for one to get ahead, he or she must grovel in humiliation. What exactly does this suggest about the culture?" Isn't that a scream also? I'll bet you a donut that this foolish remark comes from a conceited American who never once stops to thinks, "Gee? Mine is that a culture of fighting and insisting on always being right (or going to court for spilling McDonald's coffee on one's lap), or constant war and killing millions of people around the world....What exactly does this suggest about the culture? Too funny.

Anonymous said...

Your gross simplification of American culture is stupid, tactless, and irrelevant. You're talking about a universal behavior in Japan, a product of culture that nearly everyone adheres to (except some Japanese who have the experience of living abroad) whereas a great many Americans do not eat Big Macs, march against imperialism and would never think of suing McDonalds for spilling coffee (funny how you're writing about critical thought in your last blog yet you generalize 300 million people via the actions of a single lout-- but hey, takes one to know one, eh Mikey?)

Critical, but not thoughtful, par for the course, Old Boy.

mikeintokyorogers said...

Proof that this American is very touchy about this subject. Proof that people can no longer read critically nor think analytically shows up in the comment by Anonymous... He writes, "Your gross simplification of American culture is stupid, tactless, and irrelevant." Yes. So irrelevant that he feels that he simply must comment... Then he says something even dumber, "You're talking about a universal behavior in Japan.." Then he contradicts himself, "except some Japanese who have the experience of living abroad" (Gee, the video linked in the article that ridicules this tradition was made by younger Japanese. Trust that there are many many younger Japanese (under 30) who do not follow these traditions to the chagrin of the elders- just ask any older Japanese what they think of young people today!) Then this guy writes something from left-field; "a great many Americans do not eat Big Macs". Fine. Did I write that? Nope. Proof that even you, (Old Boy!) Mr. American, have the stereotype of Americans ingrained in your head. Aren't you embarrassed? Show me where did I ever write about Americans eating Big Macs? Are you using this forum to attack what I wrote or to defend the poor image people around the world have of Americans? If it is the latter ( which I suspect) go write your own blog. Like I said, more solid proof that people cannot read critically nor think analytically. Since this is an American, I'll file this one under, "See? I told you the US public education spits out ill educated people. And that Americans cannot think for themselves.... Which is a common problem all around the world, sadly.

Anonymous said...

If you don't like what the Americans do that's fine... You still have to admit that they are the greatest country in the world! If you won't admit that, they will bomb you "back into the stone age."
....Americans think they have the hammer and the whole world is one big nail.