Erica Brown

Getting To Nordstrom’s

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.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).