Irasshaimase: The Art of Mindful Service

My early career started in ice-cream.  Three years at New Zealand Natural, then a year at Baskin-Robbins. I am often asked ‘which is the better ice-cream?’.  In my opinion that’s easy: Baskin-Robbins takes the award for variety of flavours, but NZ Natural wins hands down on taste.  I was proud of my ice-cream scooping abilities and the work I did.  I was fast, efficient, productive and friendly.  It was only after visiting Baskin-Robbins in Japan that I realised I was getting the whole service thing wrong for many years.

The Baskin-Robbins we visited was in Hiroshima Japan: a vibrant, multi-cultural city on the bay. The service experience was very different to my experiences in Australia, but consistent with the customer service experiences we enjoyed across Japan.  Before it was our turn to be served, I observed the young boy ahead of us in the line receive the sales assistant’s undivided attention and care.  Regardless of age or status, the service was the same.  The assistant listened attentively, wrote down the order and asked the customer to be seated, before very carefully and mindfully serving perfect scoops of ice-cream. Our visit to Baskin-Robbins became a half hour experience, rather than a mindless scoffing of a sweet treat.

There is no chance of walking into a Japanese store unnoticed.  And when you are spotted, you will hear a welcoming greeting – ‘Irasshaimase’ – which seems to reverberate around the room, with each available staff member joining in the chorus.  My understanding, and my felt experience, is this greeting is a welcome and an invitation to be served. ‘We are here to serve you’ is echoed in body language, eye contact and a graceful smile.  I like to think it reminds the service staff that whatever they were just doing (that didn’t involve a customer) is not as important as serving the customer.

Japanese customer service is mindful customer service.  Time stands still and the most important thing in the world is the present moment.  It is unhurried and very aware. Interestingly, we noticed we were more mindful consumers in Japan as well – carefully choosing our products, mindfully enjoying them, and being very aware of disposing of any rubbish thoughtfully, leaving our space clean for the next customer.  It felt like we spent our money more wisely and carefully in Japan, and enjoyed the process more.

We all have a guilty pleasure and mine is a good massage.  I have no weakness for handbags, shoes, jewellery, or even clothes.  I love experiences, and massage is top of the list.  I’ve noticed that a good massage has one key element – you can feel the masseuse is mindful and present.  A masseuse with ‘all the right moves’ who doesn’t respond to your body’s tight spots is inferior to a masseuse who is genuinely responsive to their client’s needs.  It goes without saying that the one massage I had in Japan was sensational!

There is a price to mindful customer service though. It takes time.  We need to slow down to provide it, and we need to slow down to receive it.  After all, it’s impossible to give service while you are being expected to do multiple things at once, and it is impossible to be a recipient to this service while you are staring at your mobile during service, or rushing things along so you can get to the next busy thing.

The sweet irony though is when we slow down and do it right the first time, we are actually more efficient and have less mistakes to correct.  We know that multi-tasking is a fallacy, more aptly referred to as switch-tasking.  When we attempt to do multiple things at once, our attention is constantly shifting between each task, like a torch flicking from one object to the next.  Each time our attention moves, it takes at least a few seconds to re-orient ourselves to the task at hand, draining time and mental energy.  Here’s an interesting exercise to try to test it out.  Time how long it takes you to write out the alphabet, and then the numbers from 1 to 26. Then, complete the same task, but this time write the first letter then the first number, then the second letter and the second number, continuing until all the letters and numbers are completed. You will find it not only takes a lot longer, but your stress will likely rise from the switch tasking too!

In summary, here’s some practical tips for providing sensational service to a customer or even a colleague:

1) Make eye contact. It sounds simple, but it’s often missed in our quest to be fast and efficient.
2) Drop everything else and only focus on the person in front of you. This includes anything with a screen!
3) Change your language and refer to multi-tasking as switch-tasking.  You will be reminded of how unproductive this practice is and less inclined to indulge in the habit.
4) Practice being a mindful customer. Put your phone away even when you are waiting during service, and see how much more you value and enjoy the purchasing experience.

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