NOVEMBER 2, 2017 – Israel’s reputation as the “Startup Nation” is well-founded. With all the apps, devices, scientific discoveries, technological breakthroughs, and research and development know-how, there’s virtually not an action that someone undertakes in the United States that doesn’t have an Israeli footprint on it.
But when it comes to customer service? Well, let’s say that our amazing out-of-the-box thinking that Intel and Microsoft are so enamored with hasn’t really translated to the social intercourse on the retail level.
That old-time Sabra surly, disorganized, “customer is not necessarily right” mentality is still alive and unruly at supermarkets, shops, health clinics, and customer service centers.
It’s especially apparent when contrasted to the friendly to a fault demeanor you encounter in the US. During my last visit to a supermarket in New England last summer, the exaggerated “HI, HOW ARE YOU?”
“HAVE A NICE DAY” and “HOW MAY WE HELP YOU?” uttered with the sincerest smile and attentiveness had me feeling I had walked into a latter day Stepford Wives.
In Israel, there is no personal space, so that’s never a problem, and there’s no patience for pandering platitudes. There’s something refreshing and real about that, which makes the American happy attitude a little jarring.
That’s not to say that there hasn’t been a vast leap in the quality of Israeli customer service in the 30 years I’ve been living here. The big revolution was the introduction of “take a number” machines at banks and health clinics – two places of utter chaos until this century.
Gone are the days, at least at those institutions, of people arriving and muttering the mantra, “Who’s last in line?” Not to mention the all-time hit “I’m after you, I’m just running to the grocery store for milk.” Of course, when that person shows up later to get behind you, but in front of the person who showed up just after he left the first time, then the real fireworks began.
You still see that at lines in supermarkets and pharmacies, and invariably, everyone in the line gets involved, offering their opinion, as the cashier checks her cell phone or goes to make a cup of coffee.
Of course, even in the new civil, modern, and computerized offices, you can’t take the Israeli out of the technology. I recently visited the main Jerusalem branch of one of Israel’s biggest banks (alright, it’s Bank Hapoalim), where, the day before, my son’s ATM card was eaten by the machine as he was withdrawing cash. He had to return to his home in Tel Aviv, so I volunteered to attempt to retrieve the card and have it sent to his branch.
The number system worked flawlessly and when my turn came, I approached the office designated on the overhead projector. I explained my quest to the clerk, a middle-aged man in a short-sleeve shirt with a dour expression.
He punched something into to his computer, and without looking up, said his first words: “Why is your son’s card in the machine?”
I thought that answer was quite obvious, but politely repeated that he had been withdrawing cash and through no fault of his own, the ATM machine did not return his card.
The clerk grunted and continued to type away. A couple minutes later, he asked his second question: “Why isn’t your son here?”
Again, I patiently repeated that he lived in Tel Aviv and couldn’t come back to Jerusalem in the near future. Another grunt and more typing.
I figured I’d better act quickly to get this guy on my side, so I said something like, “He just moved there and my wife and I aren’t too happy about it. We wish he was closer to home.”
For the first time, the clerk looked up. “I have a daughter in school there and she’s working in a restaurant late, coming home late at night. I worry about her all the time,” he said.
We began talking about where our kids lived, how it’s not easy to let go, the differences between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and the cost of education.
Then he got up and said, “Here’s your son’s card. I’m putting in an internal envelope and it will get to his branch in Tel Aviv in the morning. If there’s a problem, here’s my number.”
The overhead screen projected the next number as I left his window and headed back outside.
I can certainly get used to this efficient, computerized way Israeli businesses have learned from the US and Europe how to handle customer lines. But there’s nothing that will replace the personal touch and breaking through the ornery exterior and meeting another member of the family.
P.S. The card never made it to Tel Aviv.
David Brinn is a Jerusalem-based journalist.