‘You need emotional intelligence to truly understand customer needs’

Seth Adler
Posted: 11/28/2017

In this week’s podcast interview, the VP, Marketing & Strategy, Asia & Oceania for Japan Airlines discusses his dedication to customer experience through Japanese style service


This week, CX Network podcast theatre host Seth Adler is joined by the VP, Marketing & Strategy, Asia & Oceania for Japan Airlines, Akira Mitsumasu.

He shares that as a kid he knew that he wanted to exhibit the traits he respected in his father: integrity, honesty and sincerity among others. 28 years on at Japan Airlines, while the organisation has increased marketing – or what Akira calls promising – he’s equally focused on delivering, which is why he’s dedicated to customer experience.

On ‘what works’ the company places a heavy emphasis on attention to small detail. The focus is not just on first and business class, but on economy also having a comfortable and enjoyable journey. And overall, in Akira’s words, their secret is delivering truly authentic Japanese style service, or ‘omotenashi’.




Host Seth Adler:  From Japan Airlines, Akira Mitsumasu. First some supporters to thank. And thank you for listening.

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VP of Marketing and Strategy, Asia and Oceana, for Japan Airlines, Akira Mitsumasu joins us. From customer experience management Asia and Singapore, where he shares that, as a kid, he knew he wanted to exhibit the traits he respected in his father: integrity, honesty, and sincerity, among others. 28 years on, at Japan Airlines, at the moment while the organisation has increased marketing, or what Akira calls "promising," he's equally focused on delivering, which is why he's dedicated to customer experience.

On what works, the company places a heavy emphasis on attention to small details. The focus is not just on First and Business Class, but on Economy also having a comfortable and enjoyable journey. And overall, in Akira's words, their secret is delivering truly authentic Japanese-style service, or omotenashi.

Welcome to CX Network on B2BiQ. I'm your host Seth Adler. Download episodes on cxnetwork.com, or through our app in iTunes, within the iTunes podcast app, in Google Play, or wherever you currently get your podcasts.

Akira Mitsumasu. When we first communicated with each other on email, I couldn't help but think of Akira Kurosawa, and I asked you, "Do people normally ask you about that?" And you said, "Yes. Yeah."

Interviewee Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes. They respond like that very often. The first name that the name Akira elicits in many people's mind is the film director Kurosawa Akira. And I get that comment very often.

Seth Adler:  Interesting.

Akira Mitsumasu:  And in this sense, I'm also happy to know that the name still lives on.

Seth Adler:  Well, he was a master of cinema. I mentioned many of the tropes that he used are repeated. In Seventh Samurai, when they all come over the hill, that's essentially the first time that you see that, and now you see that in almost every film, right?

Akira Mitsumasu:  In all films. Yeah. That's very true.

Seth Adler:  Yeah. You also, I just heard you mention Kurosawa Akira. You said what I know to be his last name first-

Akira Mitsumasu:  Oh, okay. Sorry. That's the Japanese way of saying it. We usually say the family name first before the first name. Yeah. So in Japan, people address me as Mitsumasu Akira, rather than Akira Mitsumasu.

Seth Adler:  I see. All right. This would mean, in addition to working for Japan Airlines, you're also from Japan.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes, I am.

Seth Adler:  All right. And where in Japan are you from?

Akira Mitsumasu:  I'm from a port city called Yokohama, which is just slightly south of Tokyo. Not very far. About 40 kilometers apart. It's just less than an hour apart by train or bus.

Seth Adler:  I visited Japan. I flew into Tokyo, and then I took a train up to Kessennuma, where my sister was teaching English.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Oh, really!

Seth Adler:  Yes. So she taught English there for a year, and I was able to visit her. To this day, the best sushi that I've ever had was on that trip. Because the owner of the sushi shop literally brought the fish from the port, in a cooler, into the ... and just started cutting it up right there, right in front of us.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes. That's actually the tradition with sushi. They would actually go to the market very early in the morning, go and pick what they think is the best and freshest part sushi, and then think of what they would serve the customers that day. That's very traditional.

Seth Adler:  Oh, yeah. It was surprising to me. My sister said, "We're going to eat sushi for breakfast." And it was an interesting concept. Breakfast foods really aren't ... They don't abound in Japan. Is that fair? That my traditional American breakfast foods, eggs and pancakes ... We don't do breakfast foods in Japan, I don't think, right? Or no?

Akira Mitsumasu:  Well, traditionally we do, we usually have rice, and a little bit fish. Not sushi. This is usually grilled, small piece of salmon, or some other fish. Particularly with eggs and seaweed. Nori. And natto, sometimes. It's fermented soybean. Usually, it's something very simple.

Seth Adler:  Yeah. And healthy.

Akira Mitsumasu:  And health, yeah.

Seth Adler:  And real food. And this is what we ate. I love it! Right?

Akira Mitsumasu:  Okay.

Seth Adler:  When you were a kid, what was important to you?

Akira Mitsumasu:  I think kids ... It's many things, not just one. I think, obviously, there are kids whereby they have this passion or dream to be something when they grow up. I think I changed a couple of times, so it wasn't like, "I want to be a firefighter!" Or "I want to be a cop!" That kind of thing. It's more like, I think I saw my father as a sort of role model, that I want to be something close to something like my father.

Seth Adler:  What did he do?

Akira Mitsumasu:  He runs his own business, but it's not his business that I was really interested in. I think I just love him as a person. His character. So I want to really develop myself to be someone that's as good as he was.

Seth Adler:  What traits did you see that you wanted to engender yourself?

Akira Mitsumasu:  It's qualities in terms of integrity, honesty, hard-working, sincerity. Well, I would say, a lot of good qualities you find in men, to be honest.

Seth Adler:  Excellent. I'm starting to learn who you are, and I'm starting to feel these things coming from you. Let's make sure that we attack what you are doing at JAL, as we speak, right? What's on your desk?

Akira Mitsumasu:  Currently, yes. Because we have been in the past really a very Japan-centric company, even though we have flown international for over 60 years. In fact, over the past couple of weeks, we have been having a lot of ceremonies celebrating our 60th anniversary in some of our regions, destinations in Asia. So I think what's important, really, is to really shift from being very Japan-centric to, in a true sense, be more international.

Firstly, we have a shrinking and aging population, so the market in Japan alone will not be sufficient for us to grow, so we have to go out and be more active in really presenting ourselves, and making ourselves known in foreign markets, and have people select us amongst many options they have today. So marketing is on top of my agenda, and in order to good marketing, well marketing is a bit like promising, so the delivery part's equally important, which is why I also place heavy emphasis on customer experience.

Seth Adler:  Okay. In delivering customer experience, I guess, what do you have already that maybe some others don't. What's important to Japan Airlines, and what do you do particularly well?

Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes. I think for us as an airline, and me being Japanese, we quite place heavy emphasis on attention to small detail. So when it comes to really creating the product, a hardware, for example, to the Business Class seats, or First Class seats, Economy Class seats ... We, by the way, have the best Economy Class seat. We've been awarded by Sky Tracks for many years. We have, even today, the widest seat pitch and width. Because we realise that most of the passengers travel, on any given flight, it's Economy Class. So we want to make sure that it's not just a Business Class or First Class, but actually the Economy Class passengers, too, have an enjoyable and comfortable journey.

That's one part, but however, having said that, the hardware part is easiest to imitate. Because as long as you have enough money invested or re-invested in upgrading your products, you can do so right away. The harder part to imitate, really, would be the soft side. The human side. Which is where we place a heavy emphasis on the way we deliver our service. The way we train our cabin crew and our ground staff to actually deliver truly authentic, Japanese-style service.

Seth Adler:  What does that mean? What is "Japanese-style service?"

Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes. Well, what I mean by "Japanese-style service," is really what in Japanese we call omotenashi, which actually really means to really be in the position of that person, and try to really understand how that person is feeling, and to really sense his needs.

So a typical example would be, if you see a customer searching his pocket, and having a form in front of him, you know that, "Oh, this person is actually looking for a pen". So even before that person asks for a pen, we would bring a pen to that passenger. Or if you see someone sitting, feeling a little bit uncomfortable, and sort of wrapping his arms around, you know that the person needs a blanket.

A lot of these ... really feeling for that person, having empathy. Obviously, working in international, and facing customers from various different cultural backgrounds, you also need to have a high level of cultural as well as emotional intelligence in order to truly understand what those needs are.

Seth Adler:  So the softer side I understand. You mentioned the hardware side being easy. However, at least as far as American Airlines are concerned, the focus is certainly not on Economy class. And they continue to shrink seats and really almost ignore that area of the plane. And they certainly don't offer a Japan-style service, right? Or Japanese style service.

I wonder why they don't and why you do? Obviously it costs money-

Akira Mitsumasu:  It does.

Seth Adler:  ... to do it the way that you're doing it. What value are you seeing? And why maybe others aren't doing that to?

Akira Mitsumasu:  I think all airlines have to own positioning as a way they want to be in the markets. Really wants to be the premium full service carrier. Or are they more satisfied or happy with being sort of average kind. That's you still have people over expect what you get but they know what to expect from, get another airline. So manage your expectations and where you want to position yourself. They come hand in hand, so it depends very much on how you want to position your airline to begin with.

And obviously that has to do with a lot of your business objectives. If you look at the economics of flying any aircraft, obviously the more seat you pack into one aircraft, it's easier to break even. The cost per seat comes down quite dramatically. So if you think a pure in terms of economic sense, in terms of generating revenue, in terms of making money, then yes, that's one way to go forward.

But we have a different sense. We still believe in service and customer first. But if you think that in the long run, it would come back to generate more revenue for us. So your right, that correlates actually driving cost up. Our unit cost per seat is much higher but market does not always accept that high price. So very often we have to force ourselves to be competitive by bringing down prices to match what's in the markets.

So that's a challenge we have. But still we believe that in long run, when believe that as a brand always promises a certain level of comfort, of premium service, of good both hardware and software. On the soft side that's something that would generate loyalty. And creates a brand whereby people will recognise.

Seth Adler:  Once you deliver on that, consistently.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Consistently.

Seth Adler:  And I had the opportunity to, during one of the legs of my journey here to Singapore customer experience management Asia. And on my way to Singapore, I had a leg from Tokyo to Singapore, where I was on Japan Airlines. And I fly a lot. And I was struck by the fact that there was a flight attendant at my side essentially when I needed that person, before I almost knew that I needed that person. I experienced what you're talking about. And it is true.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Okay, I'm happy to know that.

Seth Adler:  How do you train folks to do that? How is that possible? How can they know that? How can they have that much empathy?

Akira Mitsumasu:  Three things I could mention. One I think it's more cultural, if you are born and brought in Japan, it's in your daily life that you're all the time very conscious of the people around you. So when you open the door, you close it or you make sure that it won't slam on someone. You hold the lift for [inaudible 00:14:35] someone's getting first. So it's very much in our daily lives that we practice this. So that it really comes out very naturally, you don't really have to think about this. It's more like a bodily reflex you do that.

On top of that, obviously we do a lot of role playing to create all kinds of scenario, all kinds of situations. Obviously sometimes we bear in mind that is not always Japanese, so how is someone from a different cultural background respond to what you're trying to deliver? Will that person understand what's happening? Or will that people actually feel somewhat uncomfortable with too much formality in the service they deliver? And we try to fine tune that and try the right balance between not being too intrusive or not being overconfident in what we do but to really have a more reserved attitude and to be ready when we are needed.

Seth Adler:  To be ready when we are needed.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes.

Seth Adler:  That's fantastic.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes. And the third one really is just a formal training where we go by our formal training procedures just to make sure that they have all the basics they need in order to deliver the right service. But often, they have good intentions, they want to give you the best service, but don't really know how to do it. Take a very simple example, if I'm to put down a cup of coffee, placing down like this versus placing this down gently and push it slightly forward, it's very different experience.

Seth Adler:  It's a very different experience. It's a simple thing but completely different. The first way you did it and you did actually used a mug is the way that I probably would have done it.

The way that you did with much more subtle and appreciated. It almost made me wan to drink the coffee more, right?

As far as training is concerned, Kaizen Six Sigma it comes from Japan. How much of that is what Japan Airlines does? Or do you have your own kind of thought process around it? Talk about that as far as...

Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes. Kaizen is again something that we do all the time. Of course we understand that is a never ending process for two reasons. One is that there's always going to be some room for improvement, so it's not going to say "Okay, it's perfect now. I don't have to do anything more." But there's always something new. And it gets subtler and subtler. You get to appreciate what you're doing.

Another, the world is changing, evolving all the time. So even if you think you have the best practice, that may not longer be valid or that may not actually meet the needs of your customers. So we see that as ongoing process, it's always going out understanding what environment, and how it's changing and adapting ourselves in order to deliver that service.

Seth Adler:  That's the big picture. As far as Kaizen is concerned, do you have a component that's a favorite for you? A specific learning or a specific kind of nuance to the entire philosophy?

Akira Mitsumasu:  Two things we have actually. One is we do actually in fact have really in literal sense, a book called Child Philosophy. And in that book there, a lot of chapters that touches on Kaizen. Just to give you an example, one of which is tomorrow has to be better than today. So it's not like I took it for granted, I've reached the pinnacle of success, I've done it, we have reached the very top. No still, we have to strive further, that it will be better tomorrow.

So always be innovative and think how we can innovate and be better tomorrow is something that we try to instill to all our employees through using of philosophy handbook.

It is also useful in the sense that it creates an organisation that becomes incentive compatible. We often hear stories that say "It's no use for me to end up at the rest of the team." The answer in that, "No, I was just doing that, why should I?" Having a shared philosophy handbook is good in that it's like a rule book that teaches you how to play better. If you know that everyone else is going to play the game according to this book, you lose out by not actually playing along the same rules.

So it helps to improve yourself. So that's how we see it. And that's how it has actually over the past couple of years worked to help us build an organisation that is very incentive compatible.

Seth Adler:  How long have you been at Japan Airlines, personally?

Akira Mitsumasu:  I've been with the company for what, 28 years now.

Seth Adler:  Oh my goodness, really?

Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes.

Seth Adler:  Oh my goodness, 28 years! All of these things that you're speaking about, have they always been there in someway? And if so, if tomorrow was always better than today, how have they changed?

Akira Mitsumasu:  I think we've learned a really hard lesson when we filed for bankruptcy-

Seth Adler:  Indeed.

Akira Mitsumasu:  ...back in 2010. And I think, two huge lessons I think we learned out of that. One is being mediocre, saying that we are the premium carrier but actually we are not really there.

Seth Adler:  Fooling ourselves in thinking that.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Fooling ourselves, living in tradition and believing that. I think that really pushed us back to our basic, which is why we also changed our logo back to the crane logo, to remind ourselves of the basics that in order to be truly a premium airline we have to work hard every single day, to make sure that that's the kind of service we deliver. And make sure we have enough cash to reinvest into our business.

Which is why, over the past five years, we have had double digit operating profits, which we know now that that's actually very, very essential for us to reinvest and making sure that we are able to upgrade our seats, our cabin, our in-flight entertainment, our in-flight view and so forth.

Seth Adler:  Double is the new break even, essentially.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes.

Seth Adler:  What is the crane? What is the symbolism of that if you could share that a little bit more? Besides it being the traditional logo, is there a further meaning?

Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes, it's a very Japanese symbol that symbolises obviously the elegance of the crane as a very beautiful creature but also it's very traditional, it's very old. It also symbolises longevity, so it's like company as an ongoing concern that we continue to serve our customers. And also being very Japanese at the same time.

Seth Adler:  Which is important. So 28 years, did you have any other jobs along the way? Or was this the one out of university I wonder?

Akira Mitsumasu:  It's again, very typical Japanese, especially my generation where we leave university and join a company. But having said, our idea of company is slightly different. We don't really see it as a company, we see it more as a community. When you join a certain organization especially something like Japan Airlines, which is very traditional company. We view it as more like joining a community and the CEO is more like a Chief Tribe, taking over the welfare of all community members.

So there's really no reason for you to leave. And this is very good in a sense that then you can really focus on investing all your time and all your energy into contributing into the organization, into contributing because it's your own community, you want to make a better community so you work hard to make that happen. So that's a kind of mindset, especially people in my generation we have towards a company.

Seth Adler:  If you don't have to worry about leaving, I can just spend all my time worrying about the company. Which is the community, which is me.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes, absolutely.

Seth Adler:  If I'm listening and that sounds like an interesting concept and I'm a CEO, how might I do that for my organisation? And maybe I'm not Japanese, right? So it sounds like it's easier if you're coming from that culture? How can we do that at an American company that is focused to reporting to the street and ensuring that the profits are as optimised as possible?

Akira Mitsumasu:  I think it comes back to the history. I'm not saying that which one is correct or which is less efficient, it's just really historically what are companies for? Why do we need a firm? And I think historically Japanese comes from a mindset is essentially a community whereby the Chief stakeholders are employees, which is community.

Whereas in many Western firms, the idea really comes from the ownership and the stakeholder versus the ... I'll say the ownership, its shareholders, and management who runs the company. And they are different and it a principal agent theory whereby agent works the benefit of the principal. And therefore this is more, the incentives are more driven towards satisfying shareholders. So it's totally a different mindset. It's not necessarily the employees first.

It's interesting that even after bankruptcy, we are bold enough to actually state very clearly in a corporate philosophy that this company exists primarily for both the materialistic and also the spiritual well being of our employees so that we are able to create or deliver the best of ever service to our customers and that as a result will contribute to the betterment of the society.

So it works on a very bottom up basis. So in that sense, CEO is here, our President is here really to make sure and to support all employees.
Seth Adler:  And it sounds like it's working. You've got the numbers to back it up, the numbers to prove it.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes, we do.

Seth Adler:  I'm seeing that you take absolute pride in that.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Well, I think we still try to be very humble and always have an open mind to learn from best practices. While I think one of the very good thing of being here in Singapore, actually, really is to see how other companies are facing very similar challenges, what their approaches are, and what we can learn from them? So I'm always open to learning new things.

Seth Adler:  Indeed, and let me learn a new thing. I mentioned the word pride and you came back with the word humble. And I wonder how those concepts are related in your mind?

Akira Mitsumasu:  In my mind, I think pride is good in a sense that it gives you confidence. It gives you the motivation to actually continue to excel but I think it needs also come with a certain sense of humbleness, whereby you are always ready to leave your comfort zone. So this is something more personal, that for myself whenever feel that I'm in my comfort zone, I move out.

Seth Adler:  Interesting, Is that to go back to the beginning, something that your father would have done, right? In work.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Absolutely. Yes, I think I learned that from my father.

Seth Adler:  Is he still around?

Akira Mitsumasu:  Unfortunately not. He passed away six years ago.

Seth Adler:  Okay, my mom passed away about ten years ago but we have to continue on, that's what we got to do.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes, we do.

Seth Adler:  But it sounds like you came through on your initial inclination, which was to be as similar to him as possible.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes, that's true.

Seth Adler:  So congratulations on that.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Thank you very much.

Seth Adler:  I've got three final questions for you. I tell you what they are now, and then I'll ask them in order.

What is most surprised you at work? And this would be your 28 years at Japan Airlines.

What is most surprised you in life?

And on the soundtrack of your life, one track one song that's got to be on there.

But first things first. You have this very unique experience at least today, these days being at an organisation, one organisation for as long as you have. What's most surprised you at work?

Akira Mitsumasu:  I think what's most surprised at work, what has surprised me for a long time as they continues to surprise me, is I think the work ethic inside the company. How hard working people are. And not to say that we're all workaholic, but it's just that they managed to get really very seriously and managed really map their work objectives to their own objectives in life. So they know that what I'm doing is good for not just my work but for my own personal development.

Seth Adler:  But this is, of course, a commandment in the mission, right?

Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes.

Seth Adler:  What's most surprised you in life?

Akira Mitsumasu:  A couple of years back, I might shy away from saying this but I think yeah, my marriage has been the best thing that happened to me and I'm still daily amazed and happy that yes, I have a wife that I love.

Seth Adler:  And so we thank her as well.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Yes.

Seth Adler:  On behalf of everyone here.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Thank you.

Seth Adler:  On the soundtrack of your life, one track one song that's got to be on there.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Songs, I think we all have sort of multiple songs that brings back memories of different periods of our lives. I think it depends on which period you want to record or which period has the sort of firmest footprints on you.

Seth Adler:  Indeed.

Akira Mitsumasu:  I just came from London two nights ago ... I think a hymn called Jerusalem, I'm not sure whether you know of it.

Seth Adler:  I'm aware of the city maybe not the tune but who is it by? Or ...

Akira Mitsumasu:  The words written by William Blake, he's a poet. It's a lovely song, you can check it out on YouTube.

Seth Adler:  I'm going to have to. Absolutely, I just need to unabashedly ask you you're the right age to be a Cheap Trick fan and we know in the U.S. that Cheap Trick was huge in Japan. Do you know what I'm talking about?

Akira Mitsumasu:  Honestly not very clearly.

Seth Adler:  Maybe they weren't so big in Japan after all, right?

Akira Mitsumasu:  Or partly because I haven't been in Japan for past three years.

Seth Adler:  So you're based ... Where are you based now?

Akira Mitsumasu:  I've been in Singapore for what, three years now.

Seth Adler:  Okay.

Akira Mitsumasu:  Anything that happened in Japan, over the past three years I might not be all together that aware.

Seth Adler:  I gotcha. And how do you like Singapore versus living in Japan, the homeland?

Akira Mitsumasu:  Singapore is a wonderful city, is very livable as everyone would agree. And what I like best about Singapore is very compact and you have this culture whereby people are very open to networking and exchanging ideas, which is why we have so many events throughout the year. And it's also the case whereby I can ring someone up and say "Can we have coffee in afternoon?" And most likely the person would say yes. And they would compare notes, exchange ideas and learn something new.

I think that that's what I like about Singapore very much. The only thing that I still haven't quite got used to is the weather. It's either hot or hotter. So sometimes I miss the cold climate.

Seth Adler:  Right, yes it does get so cold in Japan. In the North of Japan, I feel like I was never colder 'cause there's no heat in the house.

Akira, thank you so much for your time. Very much appreciated.

Akira Mitsumasu:  You’re most welcome, thank you very much.

Seth Adler:  And there you have, Akira Mitsumasu.

Omotenashi means to really be in a position to of that person and understand what that person's feeling and anticipate his needs.

Very much appreciated talking to Akira, he has a very kind soul. So thank you for your time, stay tuned.

Seth Adler
Posted: 11/28/2017