This past spring I was lucky enough to travel with a group from Softwoods Export Council to Japan to present classroom seminars to Japanese new home builders who are rising to meet the growing need of the country's nascent remodeling industry. It's a real kick to share with them what we remodelers in the United States take for granted. But at the end of the day, I was the one most inspired.

Rick Hjelm, CR, CGR
Rick Hjelm, CR, CGR

Service With Sincerity The Japanese have shown me that American business doesn't have a clue about customer service. If we want continued success, we must step up to the next level and follow their example. Japanese consumers expect an incredibly high level of service, and in this competitive market, business owners sink or swim. For instance, in every large city there is a 7-Eleven type store on almost every corner. Even if I were only buying a Diet Coke or a bottled water; a box of the ubiquitous Pocky's, a brand of thin, stick like cookies; and small rice bowl, you would think I was buying a suit and a pair of shoes. The clerks work at the speed of light and smile at each customer as if he or she were their best friend. They seem to really mean it when they say “come again.”

Outside, street sweepers greeted me with a slight bow and said good morning. When I walked into a hotel — and I stayed at four — I was never allowed to take my own luggage. Employees would consider it an insult to deny them the opportunity to serve a customer. When I signed in at the front desk, I was treated like royalty from a small country. First, everyone bowed welcoming me to the hotel. They handed me my room key with another bow and a sincere thank you. The bellhop escorted me to my room, and, once there, he placed my luggage wherever I wanted it, then gave another genuine bow and a thank you for the opportunity to serve me. He didn't stand at the door awkwardly waiting with his hand out as I figured out a fair tip. Tipping is not expected and not done.

The same rules apply to the white gloved cabbies that drive spotlessly clean taxis with lace seat covers. Every day I was there — and it didn't matter if I was in Tokyo, Hiroshima, Osaka, or Fukuoka, a small sobe noodle restaurant in Kobe or the Hard Rock Cafe in Yokohama — the quality of service was extraordinary. I was in total awe.

Service Commitment at Every Level As my business has matured, so have others in my region. We've watched a growing group of remodelers emerge who can provide a quality product on a consistent basis in our higher-end market. It's not the quality of what we produce that has to change — though there is always some room for improvement — it is the quality and quantity of the service we offer that has to change. This adjustment has to go all the way up and down the chain to our suppliers and subcontractors. It can't be just a policy change, buzzword, or part of a sales pitch, either; it must become an emotional commitment.

As the qualified craftsmanship of the competition increases, I see clearly that it is the company (the whole company) that provides the best, most passionate and genuine service — and not just lip service — that will be still standing when the dust settles. —Rick Hjelm, CR, CGR, (Big50 2002) has been a full-service remodeling contractor in the Tacoma, Wash., area since 1978. Since 1993 he has worked with the Evergreen Building Products Association, which has hosted several delegations from Japan that have come to the Puget Sound area to learn more about the remodeling industry by hosting hands-on seminars and site visits. He can be reached at