Saturday, January 21, 2006

Appreciation Wednesday (on Saturday): Customers First!

Israel has an often-deserved reputation for, ah, less-than-wonderful customer service. The situation is getting better as businesses (and the government) get computerized, resulting in shorter lines and wait times, and as Israelis get more connected to the "outside world," resulting in more "service with a smile" rather than the desultory "what do you want?" attitude that sometimes passes for service here. Most notably, the wait times at government ministries are far shorter than they used to be. The days of immigrants complaining that they waited all day for an appointment only to be told to get different paperwork and to the back of the line again are pretty much over.

[I should interject that Americans' complaints about bad customer service are often, I suspect, simply a matter of cultural differences, not really of the service. Israelis are extremely direct, and Americans (who are much more direct than Europeans, but not nearly as direct as Israelis) often confuse directness for rudeness. For example, going back to my paragraph above . . . in the USA, the polite way for a bank clerk to indicate that she is ready to help you is to say "how can I help you?" In Israel, I've noticed that the clerks sometimes say "What do you want?" which of course to me sounds really bad. Once I called someone on it, asking a bank clerk "why the bad mood?" and she said, completely innocently, "What do you mean?" and I said "well, asking 'what do you want' doesn't sound like you are in a good mood to me. It sounds like you aren't in the mood for another customer." And she said, totally seriously, "I don't understand. I asked what you want. Why would I ask that if I didn't really want to know what you want, so I can give you what you want?" And I realized that to me, "what do you want" sounds like "what do you want," whereas she'd really been asking "what do you want."]

Anyhow, I really appreciate it when a business does provide good customer service. It makes my day even in America to be treated like a Queen by people who are charging me money for something, and even moreso in Israel, since I'm not used to it. So I want to acknowledge not one but two instances of exemplary customer service I've encountered here in the past week:

1. I spent Tuesday night in Be'er Sheva, about a 2 hours' bus-ride south of Jerusalem, for business. The people I was going to be meeting with told me that staying anywhere other than the Paradise Hotel would be pointless: the hotel was the nicest place to stay in Be'er Sheva, within walking distance of all our meetings, and kosher to boot. It was a little pricier than I'd wanted, but since staying anywhere else would have involved paying for taxis and more food, I figured I'd splurge. Boy, was it worth it. The breakfast buffet was great, it is seriously within walking distance of just about anything you'd want to see in Be'er Sheva (the malls, the old Ben Gurion University campus, lots and lots of offices, etc), and my room was gorgeous, with marble counters in the bathroom, really tasteful decor, and a little nook with a desk/internet access and extra chairs for business meetings (I was on the business floor). Plus, I noticed that they sent someone to my room to make sure the TV was working before I got there. And they have a Shabbat elevator, and there was a hair dryer in my room, and a working refrigerator (none of this "fridge is extra" or "take anything from the mini-bar and you are dead" stuff), and an extra sink and counter space for things like preparing drinks (that business floor is awesome).

But the best part -- the part which earns them a mention in Appreciation Wednesday -- is that five minutes after I checked in, there was a knock at my door, and two very smiling women gave me a plate of delicious cookies, a bottle of water, and a warm welcome to Be'er Sheva. Yay! Cookies! Now that is customer service.

Go, Paradise Hotel in Be'er Sheva!

2. When I got back from Be'er Sheva, there was a surprise waiting in my mailbox. You'll recall that I recently came back from a trip to the States. Well, while waiting for my suitcases to come 'round, I took the time to fill out a customer questionnaire about the new terminal at Ben Gurion Airport. I truthfully wrote that I love the new terminal, that it is clean and bright and pretty and makes a very nice impression for Israel, but that the walk from the gates to baggage claim, and from check-in to the gates, is way too long -- people are tired and have a lot of stuff with them and it's just too far.

Believe it or not, the Israel Airports Authority wrote a personal letter in reply. I don't mean a generic "thank you for your input" letter with my name attached. I mean a letter that had been written specifically to me. Here is what it said:

Dear Mrs. ________, [small demerit for assuming I'm married . . . ]

RE: Your letter dated 09/01/2006

Thank you so much for your kind words and I hope you had a safe return to Israel.

Indeed we are proud of this new terminal (already over a year old) and still do everything in our power on one hand to preserve its beauty and cleanliness and on the other - to improve the services rendered to the passengers. There is not a dull moment around here.

Yes, it is a long walk to the aircraft, but the architects who planned this terminal, together with the IAA Management, had in mind a concept of a large extended airport in comparison with Terminal 1, in order to be able to contain and to serve an increased number of passengers. Unfortunately, the Management of this airport has decided against providing trolleys after Passport Control, in order to preserve a "clean and clear" space for passengers to move in on their way to the duty free area and also in it. I must also draw your attention to the danger in pushing trolleys along the steep walk to the duty free area and back.

Mrs. ______, I appreciate the time you took to bring your impressions to my attention and look forward to serving you at this airport again in the future to your satisfaction.

Sincerely yours,
Thalma Shamir
Manager Public Affairs

Wow! Someone at Ben Gurion Airport took the time to answer my specific complaint! Yeah, I know, there is still a long walk from the gates to everything else, and probably always will be . . . but kudos to Thalma and the Israel Airports Authority for writing a personal letter, especially considering that Ben Gurion airport has no competition; it's the only international airport in Israel, except maybe for short flights to Egypt or something. That is customer service.

And I appreciate it!

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