Thursday, January 9, 2014

Omotenashi - little things that make big difference

Ordering some bits and pieces online for a sewing side-project I was struck by the little extras that were included in each delivery.

You see, I had ordered from a few different companies, but each item arrived with a little 'something extra', for free, and this really pleased me. Ribbons I'd ordered came with an extra sequined thread with "For You" on the packet, and these Liberty fabric samples arrived with this crazy-cute Hello Kitty swatch with a little note.

Little extras packaged with Liberty fabric and ribbons

If I think back, quite often when I've ordered things online there will be a little cute card in there, or a tiny package with one or two biscuits, or a recipe card.

It's not just online either - when you're at a restaurant you'll sometimes get given a サービス / service item (in Japanese "service" pronounced in English means complimentary, for free), like when we were the only customers in a bistro in Ebisu and they gave us "service espressos".  Think about times when you've had something like a packet of tissues or a mini soap bar put into your bag at the checkout at a drugstore, or been given free square of chocolate on leaving a restaurant. Once we even came away with a small bottle of "service" olive oil, as we'd liked it so much at the table!

I've been thinking about it and fumbled around a bit with ideas like 'they like to delight people here' and 'it's the excellent service culture here' before I hit the nail on the head. It's おもてなし omotenashi (kanji for this is rarely used but is お持て成し - to carry and to achieve).

The article linked to above explains it nicely, but in its simplest sense I feel it means doing something nice for someone that they didn't ask for. In customer service this is often described as anticipating the needs of the customer before they do and delivering generous hospitality. It's often also described as being selfless, which sounds like a subservient, surrendering mindset - I'd argue that choosing to act in this way, particularly in face-to-face encounters requires an assertive mindset, empathy and confidence.

Perhaps some of how this is employed today in business might be a little more cynical, as doing it 'without expecting anything in return' is not justifiable for purely logical businesses, and so customer loyalty, further sales and so on are probably expected results.

However I do get the feeling that carrying out omotenashi is a genuine pleasure for many people, and that the delight felt by the recipient is as much as was hoped to be achieved.

Certainly, even after almost 13 years these little gestures still manage to surprise me and are one of the things that make living here a pleasure.

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