Getting To Nordstrom’s
Judaism is a great product. So why does our poor customer service get in the way, again and again?
Special To The Jewish Week
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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.

Last Update:

08/08/2013 - 14:11

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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!

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