Friday, August 19, 2011

In Japan, One Box of "Magic" Cookies and an Apology is Worth Millions!

In Japan, when someone makes a mistake at your company, and you are the boss, you can never berate that employee in public nor can you, as boss, tell the offended client or customer that your employees is to blame. You can never blame the mistakes on your staff. You have to take the blame.

No matter what happens, as captain of the ship, you must be the responsible person for whatever goes on. It can be a thankless job too. If things go well, you must give credit to your staff. If things go bad, you must take all the blame.

Sometimes, even the Japanese laugh at these traditions....
(well, older folks don't... No sense of humor!)

That is the honorable and smart was way to do business in Japan.

Last week, my company royally screwed up a campaign for a client. That client had over 300 complaints from customers in less than a few hours! The error was 100% the fault of my company and it was an embarrassingly foolish mistake; we had incorrectly written bank information for money transfers on an online document. This made a situation whereby hundreds of people couldn't transfer the money to the appropriate account in order to received the goods they wanted.

As I said, over 300 people had complained to our client and the client was, understandably, furious at us. I was furious at my staff for making such an amateurish mistake but I couldn't say that to the client. Nor did I berate my staff openly.

First we calmly rectified the account information. That night I called the people in charge at the client company and apologized. They were noticeably upset. This client is my companies #1 most important customer. Their account is worth tens of millions of yen to us. But because of this mistake, we were in danger of losing that account forever.

And all because of a careless Jr. high school level mistake.

I knew what I had to do.... I had to buy a box of cookies.... Not just any cookies. "Magic" cookies. The good stuff.

Yes. That's right. A box of quality cookies, a sincere apology, accepting complete responsibility along with bowing profusely to the in-charge at the client company.... Just might make things all right.

It certainly couldn't hurt and is worth the risk in order to save the contract.

In Japan, no matter what happens, the Japanese like it if you take complete responsibility and humbly apologize for your errors. Being able to say "I'm sorry" and saying it like a man and not someone who wishes to blame someone else, will make the Japanese respect you as a person and a businessman much more.

I went to a ritzy department store and bought the best box of cookies they had. The box cost ¥5,600 (about $73!) pretty expensive for  a dozen cookies! I went to the client company with the cookies. I knew that the in-charge showed up for work around 1 ~ 3 pm everyday. 

But he doesn't know that I know that.

I showed up at his office at 11:00 and let the receptionist know I was there.

She said, "Do you have an appointment?"

"No." I replied, "But my company made a serious mistake last night and I must apologize so I came here. I will wait until he arrives. Please tell him that I am waiting." Of course, I asked the receptionist what time it was so that she would make a mental note of it.

Then, I sat in the lobby and waited. Well, actually, I did work on my laptop. Work I would have done had I been at my office. But here, I could do the work and show diligence in making sure that I met with the in-charge.

I waited and the girl asked me a couple of times if I still wanted to wait. "Of course," I replied.

Finally, at 2:30 pm, the in-charge showed up. He was so surprised to see me.

He said, "You've been sitting here for a few hours!?"

"Yes. I needed to see you and apologize." I replied.

We sat and talked and I explained everything all the while taking full responsibility. I bowed over and over and handed over the box of "Magic" cookies and asked that he share it with his staff who we had bothered with our stupid mistake.

After thirty or so minutes of talking he became much calmer and actually smiled. I told him that they were the #1 most important client to us and that we would do anything to make it all right - even forfeit all of our commissions for this one event. He thanked me and asked that we be more careful next time and he promised me that, on his side too, they'd try to be more organized so that things weren't done so rush-rush and last minute.

I thanked him and we shook hands. The contract was saved and we won't be penalized for the error. We just must be more careful next time.

With this 3.5 hour effort of waiting and a $73 dollar box of cookies I saved a multi-million yen contract.  I also saved us from losing all commissions from this particular event. This one event was worth about $60,000 to us. I saved it with a short wait, a bunch of humility, a lot of bowing and taking responsibility... 

...And a $70 box of cookies.

Now, if those cookies aren't magic, I don't know what is.  



Roger Marshall said...

Thank you for sharing this so openly and honestly. To those of us who have been doing business in Japan for a long time it makes a huge amount of sense and is a good reminder. For most western business people - particularly Americans - it will sound crazy, totally over the top, and illogical. May I get your permission to show this to some of my corporate clients?

mike in tokyo rogers said...

Dear Roger,

Please do. Thanks!


Anonymous said...

Well done, Mike. But how do you explain, then, given this wonderful tradition of apology, the apparently endemic refusal to take responsibility, which can be seen daily on TV and YouTube? My theory is, the cost of taking responsibility in Japan has traditionally been extremely high (seppuku, anyone?). What do you and readers think?

James A said...

I need to do the same thing as well. I did a boneheaded screw-up myself (missed an appointment), especially since they are a client that is very important and I enjoy working with. Mike is dead-on correct with the importance of this.

Andrew Joseph said...

Ahhh... Mike... awesome! Sucks about the mistake, but I love the Japanese way of taking responsibility and rather than blaming everybody, just simply deal with the problem.
But... why cookies? Okay.. I understand the need to apologize... I can understand the best scotch or something... but really... what's with the cookies? And what type of cookies were they? Not just simple rice crackers... but what in god's name could make 12 cookies worth $73 dollars or millions of yen?
I must have taken this Japanese sense of responsibility back with me to Toronto. When the team I am with screws up, I take the blame (as a team)... of course, I'm not the boss... but people seem to like me and are surprised by me taking the blame and then doing whatever we need to do to fix the problem. We can point fingers later... though it will never be me doing the pointing.

Zanchito said...

Good read, Mike. To me, a boss is a leader, and being a leader means being responsible and even taking shots for your people. I can't help thinking the world would be much better off if this was more common.

Anonymous said...

Would your customer have been delighted with a box of the world's safest cookies, I wonder?

Anonymous said...

damn! i thought this was going to be about "real" magic cookies with a "special" ingredient. oh well.

Anonymous said...

If we are not grateful, nor appreciative, we are also not thankful or apologetic. Thank you notes, along with thank you gifts of food, do not go out of style. Apologies are always in order. This works for a business as well as personal interactions.

Your apologetic example is a good one, and should be part of all business operations and personal life. The same would apply to sincere, handwritten thank you notes.

Why are expensive cookies the best choice rather than an expensive box of chocolates?

Did you bow perpetually before your chat? Did you apologize while you were bowing? I am not trying to be critical. I really am interested.

I am glad it worked out well for you.


Steve 'Poots' Candidus said...

It’s an interesting difference in cultures and corporate leadership – and its lack thereof in the US – isn’t it?

Although I found the videos of the traditional bowing and begging a bit much for my own tastes, the concept of taking responsibility for one’s actions and taking the leadership role is an important one. It doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you do it.

Here’s the typical American MBA (Moronic Banal A-hole) top level corporate management’s version of your scenario:

A current example is the new Government Motors refusal to honor the warranties for their shoddy products and incompetent management. Remember that it was all bailed out with money stolen from Joe and Jane taxpayer with promises from the empty suit in the white house that GM and Chrysler warranties would always be honored.

GM’s upper management will likely all give themselves big bonuses now for the money they saved by not paying those customers that it was promised for and that are entitled to it.

Corporate management in the US has long since lost its moral compass and any and all sense of decency. The concept of taking responsibility for their actions and products is something laughed at by the moral degenerates that run companies like GM, GE, AT&T, etc.

Your story was like a breath of fresh air. It’s nice to see that the concept is still alive and practiced someplace.

Good for the business leaders in Japan and good for you Mike for doing what is right.

Anonymous said...

That whole apology thing, I can't count the number of times frustrated, excelling, top notch American employees have told me that's All they wanted but never got. A bonus meant nothing in comparison.

Andrew Joseph wrote, "but what in god's name could make 12 cookies worth $73 dollars or millions of yen?"

You obviously haven't had my wife's cookies.
People who don't or can't cook go bonkers for them. I imagine the $73 dollar cookies come close and is certainly the price my wife would charge perfect strangers for hers.

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