Customer experience; the Japanese way: Hyper-specialisation and what Kanazawa’s tiny, tiny whisky bar might mean for the future.

The Japanese know you have to be authentic, you have to have knowledge if you want to look like you care and you have to respect the crowd.

People naturally want to be a little different, they want to feel special or be special. As the world is getting more connected it’s actually becoming more homogenous. Teenagers internationally are all taking selfies, using social media and shopping at Zara. Whether you are in Beijing or Brisbane, you are going to be doing a lot of the same thing.

At the same time, you might all be using Facebook in the same way but you can link with people with really specific interests and ideas. The old fashioned equivalent is the difference between a city like London and a city like Brisbane. In London, you can find from amongst the 9 million people, a Star Wars absinthe bar with enough people who like Star Wars and absinthe, to be able to fill it. In Brisbane, you are more likely to see a range of different people in the casino or in the RSL; every taste in blended into something which is more generic and more middle of the road.

As regards products, services and experiences for customers; the progression is towards wanting the Star Wars Absinthe bar experience even though you live in Brisbane.  How do you build your service and product catalogue to meet that demand?

To do that, we can look to the land of the rising sun for advice.

I was recently in Japan on holiday (and it’s great) and we visited a town on the west coast called Kanazawa. (Until recently a 4hr trip from Toyko before the launch of the new bullet train service.) The town was busy because of their huge annual Oktoberfest celebrations (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen organised Japanese conga lines to oompa music). In this town was a bar called Machrihanish . It is named after a very small town in Scotland with a lovely golf course but it is obscure for Scotland never mind a town in Japan.

Anyone who has been to Japan will notice the incredible range of small bars and restaurants with really specific themes, you’ll see tiny shops selling unusual things. Even if you haven’t been to Japan you’ll have seen their levels of super-fandom and you will also have seen how most crazes- Pokemon, cosplay, tamaguchi etc tend to start over there. It’s a remarkable place to look at customer experience.

But why……how do they approach things in Japan?

You have to be small and specific – with so many people in Japan, you have to differentiate yourself to stand out. People are actively looking for things which are unusual and special. People look for experiences which are away from the mass market whilst at the same time everyone buys commoditised products like iPhones etc. Japan has an amazing dichotomy whereby for some things, everybody is the same and for others, hugely different. The owner of the Machrihanish hadn’t named his bar the Scottish Bar or even the Edinburgh tavern. He went to the depths of something unusual and specific to create an experience.

The logic is, you have to go the whole way to create authenticity and therefore engage people in your product.

Consulting bit

The capability exists for us to use digital to enable the build of these specific products, services and experiences but to what extent do we do so. We also have the capability to understand what are the small and specific things that will interest our customers. As an example in an Australian context; why not produce an insurance product very specific to surfers – bundle up life, car, travel insurance into one experience product which pays out double for surfing related claims.  You have to support the product by showing authenticity by knowing what a surfer really needs from an insurance product. (see design thinking, empathy interviews, CX design). However, specific insights if they are applied generically aren’t that helpful. E.g. the product and the service need to be specific enough to take advantage. I can tell you right now that customers like transparency, simplicity, speed, personalisation and accuracy but that’s not enough for a customer experience strategy.

Knowledge and attention to detail – If you are going for small and specific you really have to look like you understand or you lose the authenticity and the credibility.  My bar in Kanazawa had real menus in it from the clubhouse at St Andrews, it had pictures of golf clubs in Scotland which were put in alphabetical order on the wall. I ordered a whisky and tried to explain it was from the most southern distillery in Scotland. The owner then explained in some detail how there were five further south and I had missed the Mull of Kintyre (a common mistake he said). He then explained how he was a member of St Andrews golf club (showed me his membership card) and described the relative difference between the types of seaweed on the west coast (no joke).

Consulting bit

If you look like you care about something, you have to understand it as it takes a differentiating factor into one of advantage. For the insurance company selling the surfing product, if it looks like a gimmick it will be treated as such. If you hired even one surf expert, he/she could manage the whole case load regardless of where the people are located. If it’s popular and you need more, then great.

The impact is on how you design your service (operating model to handle the traffic). The design in the fabric of your CRM is how to create better routing to your operations. A first line AI engine (with the surfing add-on dude?), 2nd line service to Brad from Bondi or even a sales discussion via Skype at the beach (surfing tinder). It’s an old tactic powered by new technology.

Crowd power – recognise the power of changing demand and waves of interest. The power of social media can generate hype in an incredibly short space of time with the capability in the background to build things quickly (consider the immediate and overwhelming supply of fidget spinners). When I was in Tokyo, I saw a huge line for a tiny food stall and then about an hour later I saw another one. The reason; both were selling Maine Lobster rolls which was the ‘big thing’. My guess would be that it’s no longer the case and everyone is eating ‘Haggis balls’ or something. The capacity for people to wait for something ‘hip’, the speed of change and the scale of demand was remarkable. Just as soon as it came though, it would be gone so if you were a lobster roll only specialist you would be stuffed. (pun intended)

Consulting bit

Any time lag in meeting the demand or any inflexibility in being able to scale would have represented a huge loss in potential revenue. The local McDonaldsshu wasn’t selling lobster rolls because it couldn’t get there quickly enough. They were nonetheless doing some good trade in their usual fare. What you need then is the ability to have that two-speed business where you can maintain your core but you give yourself the capacity to change to meet specific needs which might come quickly from nowhere.

Where I’ve seen Japan mentioned, it’s not usually in the terms of it being a leader in customer experience it’s usually about efficiency, manufacturing, knowledge, accuracy, product design and creation. However, it’s possibly because they think about the latter ones so that they can deliver the former.

Arigato gozaimasu

See more blogs from Keith Logan san @

Design Thinking; an obituary in advance

Design-Thinking-01I am a management consultant of 15 years and in that time, there is only one immutable truth. That which says that everything can be structured, rolled up into a framework, split into a method, repurposed as training materials and then sold onto clients. You can’t sell an idea but you can sell the process to get the idea.

Each consulting epoch (2-3 years) has it’s own special flavour. Lean went from manufacturing through the sausage machine into desks at public sector offices and faded into standard operations. Agile started with software developers, scrums mutated into sprints and now gets applied everywhere and nowhere (especially in proposals). Design thinking is the current chef’s special and the signs are all there that it’s about to begin it’s process of becoming commoditised and therefore go gently into the good night.

Let’s examine the signs.

1) Training – I sat in a lecture from a well known consulting firm who were extremely proud that they were rolling out training to everyone in the whole organisation on design thinking; through a 1 hour online mandatory training course. Hmmmm

2) Use of the term Design Thinky – as in, we aren’t going to run design thinking but we are applying a Design Thinky approach

3) Certification – once real saturation point is reached, the only way forward is to propose a tiered system of accreditation to support multiple layers of training and expense; green belt, master user, 4th dan. It’s only a matter of time before we see a linked in profile extoling a person’s role as a 4th Level grandmaster Design Thinker – with proof of 400hrs of Design Thinking led work supported by 5 testimonies and a formal exam.

Here is what I find wrong with this. Design Thinking relies on some real skills which aren’t built by learning the process. You have to have people instincts which allow you to run interviews and assessment based on building rapport, applying psychology and to create real empathy. You can’t do this from a pro forma spreadsheet. You also have to have the imagination and insight which enables you to manage the creation of ideas. This requires facilitation skills which come from experience and again applies a lens of psychology into how you get the best out of people. To develop the ideas, you need the ability to prototype past the point of drawing some lines on a page or building a model with some sticks; there is dev ops, UX/UI right, process/op model, supply chain right behind which needs some specific skills. To run a linear process, you look at inputs and outputs/outcomes as points of certainty to progress. By definition, the approach should go back and forward, up and down to get the best out the people and the process.

Design thinking is not a new idea. The HBR published a article about it in 2008 and even that came 30 years after a book on visual thinking – idea-sketching, seeing, and imagining which formed the basis for the psychology behind the approach. Each element comes from having years of experience and range of people who can support and deliver the method. Ironically, if you have these people together then you wouldn’t need any process or model to get good outcomes, you would rely on the group genius and the skills to bring out the insight and the answer.

Should we not abandon teaching design thinking as a method and teach psychology, facilitation, customer centricity, dev ops, product design? Sounds a lot harder right?

I am therefore declaring Design Thinking dead just as I did that social media site when my Mum signed up; all the cool people would leave and find something new, no-one would use the full access to the facilities and surely there would be other better options. (Facebook I think they were called).