Stick to making tea? Photo: iStock

The recent United Airlines Flight 3411 incident is just one of a mountain of events that show us businesses are pressured into corners because of competition and the quest for profitability and, as a result, customers and service quality suffer. Can we take a step back and perhaps learn from something more tranquil?

As a customer-service author for more than three decades, I have always been fascinated by historical practices of etiquette. In my opinion, we can learn a great deal about customer service from such practices.

When you dine in a Japanese restaurant, no matter how small, you are usually greeted with either a cup of hot green tea or a cup of iced water. To the Japanese, a hot beverage has to be very hot, and a glass of water has to be icy cold. It is good manners.

And if you have the chance to experience a good Japanese tea ceremony (茶道, chadō, or Way of the Tea), you will marvel at how elaborate, meticulous and contemplative it is. It is not merely a ceremony. Within the Japanese tea ceremony, there are lessons to be learned about respect and much more. How do we translate that into customer service and business?

Rooted in history and etiquette

The tea ceremony and the appreciation for tea came from China long ago, and the Japanese branched out with its own definitions and reflections, enriching all of us who have affinity for tea and culture.

The Japanese tea ceremony may appear esoteric for some, especially if one comes from a Western heritage. For those of us schooled in Zen Buddhism and Asian culture, the ceremony will be at least vaguely familiar. The ceremony is not merely about tea, nor is it about ambience, but it is about the respectful interaction between a host and a guest. It is definitely not merely the delivery of customer service, but a contemplative exchange between two people.

The four cardinal principles of the Japanese tea ceremony are:

  1. Harmony (和, wa);
  2. Respect (敬, kei);
  3. Purity (清, sei); and
  4. Tranquility (寂, jaku).

1. Harmony

First, the exchange between two people must begin with harmony. The environment is a measured and intentional presentation to nullify the possible negative influences, while bringing the host and the guest together in a harmonious and still environment. The environment cannot be in a tumultuous area and is preferably sheltered, and the natural elements should not pose a threat to or discomfort either the host or the guest. You will often find the setting of the ceremony surrounded by bamboo greens outside or a meticulously cared-for garden. The interior where the tea ceremony is held is tranquil and understated.

2. Respect

Next, the host and the guest come together with heartfelt gratitude, where respect is not mere courtesy, but a sense of thanks and humility for the shared journey in the ceremony, where the host and the guest are equals in the same shared space. There is no assertiveness of one party over the other, and there is a quiet and contemplative exchange between the host and the guest. The host will lead the guest respectfully throughout the journey, and allow the guest to savor the meaning behind the ceremony.

3. Purity

There is nothing like a pristine environment where inhabitants are immersed in an unspoiled and meticulously cleaned space. The guest will be led by the host to wash his hands, symbolizing the cleansing of worldliness off the person, before entering the spiritual realm of the tea ceremony. The host will also clean the tools of the ceremony meticulously, before and afterward. After the ceremony, the guest will examine the tools and utensils to see that purity is attained. Purity is all about drilling down to the fundamentals, where the simplest elements that retain meaning are left, and all mundane and extraneous elements are cleaned away. This is not just about a physical environment, but about the inhabitants as well, whether the host or the guest. It is a shared spiritual journey of purification for both.

4. Tranquility

Last, after a continuous journey of laboring at achieving harmony, cultivating respect with humility, and scrubbing toward purity, one may attain a state of tranquility. Tranquility is not necessarily a mechanical step that one attains through the earlier steps, because it is a deeply contemplative state that reflects one’s own spiritual and inner leanings. One can perhaps say that the measure of one who has mastered the spirit of the tea ceremony is one who is completely at peace with himself and all around him, whether it be the environment, people, or entities. The whole journey of the tea ceremony is tranquil, and the guest will be able to allow this tranquility to linger on long after he leaves the place. It is a surreal experience.

The secret to service – humility and respect

The Japanese tea ceremony allows us, either as host or guest, to appreciate that there is a bigger universe outside of us, and that we are not the center of the universe. It is a ceremony that reduces our egos, and allows us to see the other person as an equal, as a partner, and as a teacher. It is a journey of humility, one that is so necessary and yet too often neglected.

When we can identify our humility as the spine of our beings, it becomes easier to relate to people, and when people reciprocate in like manner, the harmonious and contemplative spirit of the tea ceremony begins to surface.

It is the same with customer service in business. When individuals come together in a relational and respectful manner, the mutual goals and needs will be met equitably and efficiently. When individuals lock horns with no respect for each other on an equal footing, it becomes difficult to relate, much less conclude and carry on businesses. It is akin to the Ritz-Carlton customer-service philosophy of “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen”.

Seamus Phan

Seamus Phan is a professional speaker, published author, and artist. He straddles between the creative and technology spheres, and has great interest in studying Asian cultures, philosophies, leadership, and branding. On the side, he is an artist specializing in Chinese brush painting.