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Getting To Nordstrom’s
Judaism is a great product. So why does our poor customer service get in the way, again and again?
Tue, 01/01/2013 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Erica Brown
Erica Brown

These are days when retail lines are filled with disgruntled people returning holiday presents that they can’t re-gift, like that sweater with only one sleeve or the alarm clock that plays “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.” It’s a great time for sales and also a great time to think about customer service.

I have become addicted to customer service books. I’ve read “The New Gold Standard” about the Ritz-Carlton and “Delivering Happiness” about Zappos. On my night table is “The Apple Experience.” I devoured Danny Meyer’s book on legendary hospitality, “Setting the Table,” Ari Weinzweig’s little classic, “Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service,” and “The Nordstrom Way.”

Why all this reading? Because I’ve come to a sad conclusion after 25 years of working for the Jewish people. We have a great product. Our customer service stinks. And I’m tired of poor customer service getting in the way of our great product. And it does, again and again.

We think a great deal about fundraising but much less about the visitor/donor/stranger experience, and I’m not talking only about kosher restaurants. That’s a whole other subject. We ask people for money and get names wrong year after year; we send solicitation letters to dead people because we haven’t fixed our data. We walk into synagogues and schools and JCCs, and no one says hello. Few know our names (maybe for months or years). A friend in an interfaith marriage says that when he takes his wife to shul, no one talks to them. When he goes to his wife’s church, everyone comes over to greet them.

We think everyone’s going to give us a pass because of the good work we do. But we’re wrong. They say that people give to the organizations that love them most. So, Jews, where’s the love?

We have some exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable Jewish communal service professionals and terrific volunteers. What we don’t have are consistent and uniform cultures of institutional warmth and excellence. When you step into any Ritz-Carlton you know the service you’re going to get. And it’s not about their budget. It’s about their culture. It’s not about the money; it’s about the expectation.

John Nordstrom believed that you should be able to tell you are in a Nordstrom within 15 seconds. The initial entry is enough to tell you that you are someplace distinct for all the right reasons.  What’s the first 15 seconds like in your Jewish organization for a newcomer on a visit or on the phone? What will he or she see? How will they be treated? How will they feel? Do a sting operation on your own institution. How’d you do?

Overheard in a Ritz-Carlton, “The answer is yes … now what is the question?” Overheard in too many Jewish institutions, “The answer is no … now what is the question?” To get to yes, here are 10 tips from the masters:

1. Spend more time on staff training than on PR. Tony Hseih from Zappos says that that your most important job is to generate great stories. They will become your best PR.

2. Your staff are also your customers. Invest in creating a loving and professional atmosphere where every employee knows your mission and your expectations.

3. Select — don’t hire — people who embody your culture and actually enjoy serving people.

4. Create WOW experiences that make a lasting impression, and people will come back.

5. It’s not about customer satisfaction; it’s about customer loyalty, which means exceeding expectations every time.

6. Empower people on every level of an organization to serve others instead of always needing someone else’s approval to move forward.

7. Expect lateral service — everyone is responsible on some level for everything that goes on. If there’s litter in the lobby, every person walking by should be invested enough to pick it up.

8. Help volunteers and board members understand that plus-one service means taking volunteer commitments seriously. Everyone together is responsible for the reputation of an organization. Be a professional volunteer.

9. Research shows that people need to be thanked seven times to feel appreciated.

10. The devil is in the details and so is the angel. Small gestures matter.

We don’t want customers. We want trusted and loyal stakeholders. But we have to show our own worthiness as institutions. And if you think this isn’t Jewish, think again. We practically invented customer service. Look back at the Abraham stories of kindness. Lesson: Be kind to strangers. One day they may just become your angels.

Imagine, for a moment, that your Jewish institution — fill in the blank — is about to merge with Nordstrom’s. What would be different? Sometimes we’re a Ritz-Carlton people stuck in Motel 6 packaging. We can do better. We must.

Erica Brown is scholar-in-residence at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her forthcoming book is “Happier Endings: Overcoming the Fear of Death” (Simon and Schuster). Her column appears the first week of the month.

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I think that one of the strengths of Nordstrom's is that they treat people as individuals. Given that the core of customer service is respect for the specific needs of each person, it is bizarre that this article is superficial and built around sweeping generalizations. Lets try to avoid platitudes and get on with the real work of serving our people better.

As always Erica, you are spot on. While organizations have rushed to become donor-centric, they still fail to be customer-centric. This comes up almost every week in my nonprofit consulting practice. We need a rating system and a race to see who can get not just the Guidestar highest score but the customer service award as well!

Very true. My father has become the unofficial host of our shul. If your a visitor, he'll find you before you even know you're lost. If you're a member, he'll remind you that someone cares. I have seen the fruits this bears. I was travelling recently to Paris, and my mother connected me with a family friend, who helped me navigate my way around the city and provided me with all my kosher details. I asked my mother how she knew these people and she responded, "dad brought them home from shul one Shabbos [in New York], and we stayed in touch." Not expecting anything in return, they felt the warmth and wanted to pay it forward.

I absolutely agree with the thinking behind this article. Jewish organizations should provide better customer service. But to make that happen, we must address the entire organizational culture. Employees can become downhearted, unmotivated and uncaring when treated rudely and disrespectfully by members and volunteers. Some congregants seem to enjoy acting entitled and bossing employees around. Many thrive on creating rumors and accusations. And synagogue leaders are often ignorant of good HR policies. Where I worked, one group of employees was offered dental insurance, the rest were not. A different group was given annual bonuses, the rest were not. One past president had put his wife (who was not an employee) on the shul’s fully-paid health plan and she remained on it for years....even as other expenses had to be cut. The bottom line: trust and loyalty must go both ways. We are all stakeholders.

Wonderful article. I have experienced some bruises from staff even when I was on the national committee of a Jewish organiazation. Inexcusable and stupid actions from the paid staff. Synagogues and rabbis are indeed unwelcoming until they see a checkbook come out, or you seem like a good prospect. Volunteer for synagogue commitee, and likely it will be run by few people who call the shots; major donors run the show in all phases of Jewish communal life
We lose so many capable and wonderful people of lesser means. It's time all this stopped. One more thing- names of donors everyplace you turn...can donors give without having their named slapped on everything possible. I've seen all this and more, I don;t blame anyone who keeps his distance from Jewish organizations and congregations. We should value every Jew however much money that person has equally.
We should all be treated with warmth from the moment we step into a synagogue,
and made to feel we belong. The building funds, the worship of major donors, the checkbook Judaism will end up hurting us all. No more rabbis who find us a bother,
or are too busy to care about you as a person, while they rush to slobber over those people with big checkbooks and bigger egos. Don't be afraid to speak up. People may dislike you, but at least you'll have self respect.

Hurrah, Erica! Outstanding!!

Erica, you really hit the nail on the head with this topic. As a business school student, I read and study these companies like Nordstrom and Disney that create a "customer service first" impression to the public. In fact Disney has a school that most if not all employees have to go through in order to be employed there. Maybe there should be a similar school for administrators and staff of Jewish organizations. I see the poor customer service at many yeshiva day schools, like when you call them and they don't even put you on hold, but you hear the secretary screaming "Can you pick up Mr. Cohen on line 1!" I know Jews don't like to get too formal, but I think it's time. Thank you.

I've had the same experience in the past...until I came to what is called Temple Beth Hamish in Northeast Los Angeles. The friendliest and most welcoming group of folks so much so, the congregation has grown from barely 45 member units in 2009 to over 150 in 2012.

As always, Erica Rocks!

Great article. Thank you 7 times!

This is a great article, and the points made regarding being friendly and courteous are well made. However, there is one major difference between most Jewish organization and Nordstroms. Nordstroms whole reason of existence is to MAKE MORE MONEY. the way they make more money, is to keep getting MORE CUSTOMERS. However, most Jewish organizations, while indeed they need money and customers, this is not their reason for being.
The exception, of course is Kiruv organizations. Their whole reason for being is to create more committed Jews. They are therefore, far better at being friendly, and warm and welcoming from the moment you walk in. I do agree with you though. All Jewish organizations need to be involved in a form of Kiruv. Isnt it our obligation to G-d to make every encounter with the Jewish people - a wonderful one?

I would agree with your thoughts, but with one footnote. And that is it everyone's responsibility to G-d to be nice to people all the time everywhere we meet them. If this were the montra of individuals all over the world, it would be a much better place to inhabit!


Nordsroms wants repeat customers not just new ones. That's why they have such policies. we have plenty of loyal customers that aren't coming back as often as would be ideal and even when come they don't get as much as they should. This article is so great it should be required reading for every Tora observant Jew. Thank you for such a well written piece.

Thank you! Best stated comment!

The problem with Jewish organizations whether schools or shuls is that the only people considered important are those who are the biggest donors to these organizations. Go to a school or shul and see how the Rabbis/principals kiss up to them. Volunteer opportunities happen only if you are friends with the boards or administrations, non in crowd members need not apply.

Unfortunately, this perception can sometimes be a shul, JCC or Federation reality.

I work for a Jewish Institution, where luckily I have enough autonomy where I could hire and fire my own staff, set my own policies and create my own environment of expectations for customer service. I have always believed that ALL folks who come to us for ANY type of service should be treated to the highest standard. Unless they abuse my staff, we bend over backwards to make sure that at the end of the day, their family wants to continue to choose as for their needs to be met.

Sadly, the front desk people, the face of your organization for all intents and purposes, are sometimes the worse examples of poor customer service. In those type of positions, high energy, smart, fun and likable people should only be hired. I used to be of the belief that those jobs could be performed by a chicken or monkey, BUT I WAS WRONG! These positions are the most important ones in my organization. They determine whether people come back. They also determine who will take the job with us, because if the receptionist was sour with them, why would they want to work for us?

Anyway, great article.

It sounds like I could have written this myself. What a shame that the simple act of kindness and welcoming has been lost in our culture. Good manners don't take any extra effort. I like your style Erica!!

Well stated. At our school, where we have been actively addressing this for a couple of years, we have trained our students to be ambassadors. When any stranger visits a classroom, s/he will be greeted by a child who will say "Hello, my name is .....welcome to grade x, we are now working on y" We have taught students to establish eye contact and to reach out their hand to shake hands. We've connected this to the value of "hachnasat orchilm" A simple idea that generates a lot of good will AND the students learn an important skill grounded in Jewish texts.

Great article! We should start with our children. We have to teach them how to smile and say Hello first to the people who are older. And hope that after they grow up it will become their nature!

It seems that everything you write has been internalized decades ago by the global Chabad movement. Whether they are for everyone or not, whether you agree with them or not, they should be models for Jewish engagement for the rest of us. Fact is, they get it!

Hooray for this article! I spent many years running planning and allocations for a federation in a Midwestern city. After looking at the difference between Jewish and other organizations, I raised an important issue for our community--Afo zeh katuv (where is it written) that we Jews should treat each other as second class citizens? Historically, as a people we aspired to greatness. But today? Walk into some of the kosher butchers and grocery stores and you see schmutz. Are you greeted when you enter your local JCC? And if you experience a change in economic status, does anyone ask if you need assistance, or do they just ask for a larger pledge?

I have been volunteering for many years, but this put many of my broken thoughts into a clear picture. Of course, the difficult part is to implement the concept!

A great article. There is more to it than attitude. I am a tall, blue-eyed light brown haired born Jew (although I prefer Jewess, that is out of style) and ALL of my grandparents, were born Jews. Nevertheless, I spent most of my childhood being told I 'wasn't really Jewish.' This turned out to be good when I was assigned (I think because I 'wasn't really Jewish') to work with converts for an organization. I was able to assure them that it was just something stupid people say when they want to be nasty, and that they say it to me, and I'm a descendant (on my mother's side, no less) of several famous rabbis, including at least two who would be on anyone's top 25 of all time list. It was great I could say it, but sad that I had to.

I applaud the work that has been done in the last 25 years to reduce the hatred of Jewish women inside the Jewish community, (all but one of the converts were females that converted for marriage, and that one was the son of a man who had married a gentile girl) but self-love is more than an absence of self-loathing. There is still work to do.

Those at Nordstroms and Zappos are PAID employees. Their jobs are at stake every time they greet a customer. Those at synagogues are Volunteers. The motivations between those who are paid staff and volunteers are different. What you write sounds nice but how do the volunteers on the board motivate the other volunteers, the other board members and membership to act as if they are paid staff??

Do not be afraid to refuse to "hire" volunteers to the position for which they apply (and don't be afraid to fire volunteers whose performance reflects poorly on your organization. Jewish institutions should be open to all who want to participate and join in - volunteers especially leadership positions - just because you volunteer doesn't mean we give you a job that makes you the face of our organization.
Great quote I just heard a few days ago: "select volunteers whom you need more than they need you"

You make a good point. However that goes to the thrust of the article. You as a volunteer are putting your time, one of your most valuable assets into your shul. Ask yourself, "why?" You aren't a student there for community service credits. Your peers have stepped up to the Board for a reason. B/c the Jewish community is so valuable to you. Your community is valuable to you. If this is true, then you want your shul to be a prototype for a successful Jewish community and that in itself will make you act like those paid employees. Thus for you, the payoff is equally worth the money the employees receive, albeit in a different form. You are being 'paid' in a thriving, growing shul that will be there for yourself and your children. THAT is at stake every time you miss an opportunity to do something simple. My shul has a high priority in my life and that is my motivation. Can that not be contagious among board members? Akin to preaching to the choir? Sure it can be. Create a culture. Watch it spread.

You do not want it to be like the classic Dr. Seuss story, The Lorax. Where you return in the future to show your grandchildren the artifacts of the shul that once was. You want them to be part of a thriving community that IS. That YOU built. To me, that is terribly valuable. If the board members don't feel that way, MY question is--why are they on the board?

Good luck!

What a worthless article. Really, people should be nicer. Maybe an article about the importance of breathing is needed as well. People leave religion b/c they are influenced by the secular surrounding and it is easier not to follow the rules than be forced to follow halacha. Most non profit orgs have the majority of their people who view their role as just another job and not part of a larger chesed project.

How refreshing to hear such honesty from a seasoned professional. Kol hakavod, Erica for having the wisdom to see and the guts to speak the truth. The great news is that this is a most fixable matter. Attitudes and behaviors can change where the will to do so exists.

That is precisely what our congregation is concentrating on this year after an on-going year -long discussion amongst clergy, lay leaders and congregants. Why do we find it so difficult to be kind, outgoing and friendly to those, even in our own congregation, that we don't know?!

I love this. I actually want to read all those books she recommends on customer service:)

Wonderful letter! Jews suck at welcoming the new comer,particularly if they look poor.

Wow. I thought that was just me. I attend a Shul in Boston and I felt some of the Rabbi and people treated my like dirt. I'm an honest, hard working person. I was crushed. I sought the place out to get some inner strength as I had a bad experience in a pub in Cambridge where I was told Jews where the devil and other cliche horrible things so 1932ish.