A Tale of Two Cultures: Japanese, Americans Wonder, What's Life All About If This Is The Service Economy, Where's the Service

November 24, 1991|By JAMES A. CRAMER

For over a decade I taught aspiring international managers about the perils of culture shock and its twin cousin, reverse culture shock. From 1980 until the summer of 1991, I lived in Japan and worked with multinational firms, many of which were Japanese, training their managers and overseas staff in international management and business development.

While I am very pleased to resume life in the United States, in the few months since my return I've experienced the various trials of reverse culture shock first-hand, the very ones I covered in my training sessions. These have been all the more befuddling because of assumed familiarity and understanding of things American. Only reluctantly have I accepted that much has changed in me in the ten years I was away.

Parts of re-acclimating to the U.S. have been enjoyable -- learning to live in a spacious house, commuting a comfortable 20 minutes rather than standing 90 minutes on a packed train, being able to speak in my native tongue.

But if there is one thing that stands out in sharp contrast to Japan, it is the sad state of customer service in America. In attitude toward the customer, America and Japan are separated by more than an ocean. They are divided by a different view of what customers are, and how they should be treated. In this difference lie some clues to the erosion of our ability to compete against the Japanese.

One of my most disturbing realizations is that the expectations for a high standard of service in America have declined as precipitously as the quality of service itself. It is bothersome all the more since there is absolutely no reason why quality service has to be within reach of only the very rich. One should not have to be a millionaire to get million-dollar service, or for that matter, quality products. Our view seems to be that you have to pay for quality. The Japanese view is that you are entitled to quality, whatever you pay.

Quality of service seems to have declined on many fronts. Visits to a wide range of retail stores left me astounded at the low level of product knowledge among ''sales associates,'' frequently accompanied by indifference to the customer. People who don't know their products aren't likely to seek out opportunities to demonstrate their ignorance.

I am left with the nagging impression that good service has become the exception, not the rule. The list of offenders includes household names in department stores, home-building suppliers, car dealers, consumer-electronic outlets, restaurants and banks. Most perplexing is that managers tolerate substandard performance by employees.

My experiences with one department store chain have been especially painful. I remember as a child going regularly to this store with my father to buy tools, appliances and household items. Quality products, service and value were standard. In the three outlets of this store that I have visited since my return, I see a much different company. On one occasion I purchased a battery for a car I had in storage. I asked to have it tested before leaving. The salesman declined, saying, ''They're always good. You don't have to test it.'' I dutifully took his word, drove to my car and installed the battery. My new Diehard was dead.

When I returned the battery, reminding the salesman that he dismissed my concern earlier, he responded, ''You wouldn't believe the crap they're sending us these days.''

In the same store, when I asked a salesman about a power tool, his response was ''I have no idea.'' I asked him why he had no idea, since it was his department. He looked puzzled, shrugged his shoulders and walked away. Similar experiences followed in two other stores of the same chain where I visited. I'd like to be a loyal customer, but the store seems determined to stop me.

I've had some good experiences, to be sure. The Custom Savings Bank staff in Pikesville was helpful and courteous in ''re-educating'' me on changes in local banking practices. A Merchant's Tire dealer provide fast, courteous and quality service when I needed it.

Maryland Tropicals in White Oak Mall, Silver Spring, is a case study in the development of knowledgeable, customer-oriented staff. Not only do they train their staff, they train the customer as well, knowing that an informed customer recognizes quality and value. It would never occur to me to shop elsewhere. They are that good.

Unfortunately, experiences involving memorably good service pale in number of those that were unforgettably bad. ''Not my department'' and ''I don't know'' are not uncommon responses to inquiries. Going the extra step to assist customers seems to be a lost art -- especially in large retail outlets.

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