All of us are competent providers of customer service; otherwise, we would not be working at OU Kosher. However, there are some refined and nuanced points that should be kept in mind.
In order to best bring out these points, we will use an illustration of a customer service nightmare, gleaning some key customer service insights from examples of poor customer service.
You go to a supermarket in search of OUD/cholov Yisroel Elite chocolate bars. Upon entry, you take a quick look for the candies/chocolates aisle, but it is not readily visible. You need some assistance, hoping that a manager or other store employee can be of help.
You walk around a bit and glance down the aisles in search of assistance, and i) you cannot find anyone to help. Alternatively, you encounter a store employee who ii) shows no interest in speaking with you, or iii) does not know where the candies/chocolates aisle is, or iv) does not speak English. (You then wisely consider leaving and trying another store.)
What can we learn from this customer service failure? Let’s take it point by point.
i) You cannot find anyone to help. A company must know that its RC is the address for all issues, questions and requests relating to its OU certification program. By declaring and demonstrating to the company that it should feel totally comfortable and confident turning to you to successfully handle its OU program, an excellent customer service relationship can be established.
ii) The employee shows no interest in speaking with you. Unlike this employee, our words and attitude must express an immediate desire to help and assure that the company’s quest for an LOC, ingredient source, product request form, or whatever else is fully satisfied. The company must know that we want to be approached for assistance and will provide it right away.
iii) The employee does not know where the candies/chocolates aisle is. Unlike this employee, we need to know the detailed workings of the OU Kosher system - the internal work-flow for all requests, how all forms and applications are to be filled out and submitted, the basics of when a product is private label versus when we need to set up a co-pack agreement, how to issue a credit memo, navigation of OUDirect and OU View (financials system), and so forth. We also need to maintain a great familiarity with our accounts, so that when a company asks for an approval, we do not need to first check if the company is dairy, pareve, mixed, all-kosher, if it has a kashering system, what exactly the company manufactures, etc. We need to continue to review our accounts on an ongoing basis and possess a good and current working knowledge of them, so that we can intelligently reply to most company requests (and RFR communications) on the spot.
iv) The employee does not speak English. I guess that this is not an issue for us. (However, if you feel that your communication skills could use some fine-tuning, please “tune in” soon for some upcoming discussion about this issue, IYH.)
Although you decide to leave the supermarket and try another store that has better customer service and can provide the Elite chocolate bars without much effort on your part, your eye catches sight of a rack of corn chips and potato chips near the check-out area. You decide to purchase a bag of potato chips and a bottle of water on the way out, as you are anyway near the check-out counter.
You thought that this miniscule purchase would take a matter of seconds, but i) you end up waiting almost 10 minutes to be checked out, as the cashier takes three to five minutes for each of the customer in front of you. When you finally are ready to check out, ii) the cashier is busy telling a joke to another employee and does not acknowledge you. After being left waiting for a minute or so, you loudly clear your throat in order to get the cashier’s attention. She continues to ignore you, and when you again clear your throat even more loudly, iii) she asks, “What’s the matter?”, grabs your bag of potato chips and bottle of water and smashes them against the check-out price scanner (and you hope that your potato chips have not become potato powder), and either mumbles the total cost of your order or is silent and expects you to look at the customer side of the cash register where the cost is displayed. You hand the cashier two dollars, she gives you back a quarter and is silent. When she sees that you are still standing there, waiting for your order to be placed in a bag, iv) she tosses a plastic bag in front of you, which you then realize means that you need to bag your own groceries. You subsequently leave the store (and never return, one would hope).
Let’s look at this customer service horror story (parts of which most of us have experienced) broken down point by point:
i) You end up waiting almost 10 minutes to be checked out. Good customer service means reasonably rapid speed. Always submit ingredient and product requests (once promptly reviewed for acceptability) to the IAR or Label Department right away. If things take longer than the company expects, keep the company closely informed as to the anticipated wait-time for the request to be processed, and try to explain why it will take some time, so that the company is not left with the impression that we do not take the request seriously or give it priority. If a request needs some additional, internal processing in order to get accomplished – such as an IAR review of a questionable ingredient, or a schedule B change at a source company – make yourself a note and check back with those whose work is awaited in order for your company’s request to be completed, and keep your company in the loop as to the status of its request. Efficiency, surveillance and ongoing communication are the keys here.
ii) The cashier is busy telling a joke to another employee and does not acknowledge you. Companies must feel and know that they receive priority, top-notch service; immediate (or as quick as possible) replies to requests are a must, and any significant delay needs to be explained to the company, with the company being kept updated as to the request's processing.
iii) The cashier asks, “What’s the matter?" Although companies often should know better and not use private label authorization forms to submit requests for new products of already-certified label companies, nor should they leave out the LOCs when applying for new ingredients not in the UKD, nor should they do many other things, our job is to be patient and educate. Yes, many times a company should know better, often the company contact is new and untrained, and people do forget things that they once knew. We have to take the initiative and assure that the company understands our system, never leaving the company in a position of ignorance or being afraid to ask for help. If we are not 100% certain that the company fully understands our system and is comfortable using it, we have to step in right away and offer assistance.
iv) She tosses a plastic bag in front of you…you need to bag your own groceries. We are beseeched to get companies to use OUDirect, and it seems that RCs are very actively doing this. Nonetheless, the best high-tech system cannot replace old-fashioned, personal customer service – which is needed both for unusual situations (e.g. LOC not accepted by OU), as well as for companies that refuse to use OUDirect (and there are many – from large to small). While we don’t toss bags at companies, we need to sense when a company is not satisfied using our electronic services, even when these services are fully explained to the company and shown to be of great benefit - whereupon we must step in and assure that we will readily provide the in-person service that the company seeks.
Note that the nasty cashier was passive in every way possible. She did not greet the customer, offer to ring up his order, clearly tell him the total cost, or bag his groceries. Good service is obviously the opposite – being proactive, offering and providing everything that may be needed before the company even asks for it.
If a company submits an ingredient request and a letter of approval (LOA) is thereupon issued by the IAR, the RC should include for the company, along with the LOA, a copy of the new schedule A (preferably in Excel), cc the RFR, so that the company can see the new ingredient on schedule A and have a freshly-updated schedule A at its disposal. If a new product is approved, the RC should include a full company LOC and/or (Excel) schedule B (cc the RFR) when he forwards the LOC for the new product to his company contact, so that the company is immediately equipped with these necessary documents and can use them internally and for marketing. If a company asks about accessing an invoice (or anything else) on OUDirect, aside from providing the requested instruction, the RC should immediately provide the company with a copy of the invoice or other sought-after document. The company will feel that it is getting first-class deluxe service and will be most appreciative that the RC intuited what was needed to make it comfortable and fully satisfied. Intuiting what would make the company happy and doing it before being asked is the best recipe for customer service success.
Enough for our discussion of this nasty supermarket experience. Let’s now turn to the opposite scenario – by using illustrations from shopping for men’s suits.
Why do I use this analogy? When the OU first moved to Lower Manhattan, I began to buy my suits locally. So much about customer service can be learned from the extreme spectrum in the service provided at men’s clothing stores – from the boutique-type upper-crust establishments (beyond our pay scale) to the warehouse-style “joints”.
One clothier which I tried out prides itself on providing fabulous, raving and overwhelming customer service. From the second I entered the store until I left, I felt smothered by high-pressure appeals to add to my wardrobe; the store insisted on selling me so many things which I had no intention to buy that I felt like the salesman’s hands were in my pocket pulling out my wallet.
While we must provide the best service, we cannot become a burden to our companies, always trying to “sell them” on certification of new plants, new private labels, OU seminars, OUDirect use, and so forth. Companies want their kosher certification to be as profitable and as seamless (read “not time-consuming”) as possible; should we become a burden and hound our companies – like the type of people whose calls we sometimes try to avoid, as "they don’t leave us alone” and keep us on the phone forever, or the pushy suit salesman – we can do great harm to our relationships with companies. We must be quite prudent in this area, always being very friendly and extremely helpful, but never a burden, unless required for kashrus reasons or other imperatives. Common sense must be exercised in deciding which things (that are not actual kashrus matters or other musts) to “push” or suggest and which things to leave alone. Yes, we must do our best to market OUDirect and stress the benefits of companies maximizing their OU certification, including certification of new plants - but our appeal to these causes must never become a burden to the companies.
Some other local clothiers are like warehouses, in which customers are basically left to fend for themselves; often, the level of service at these establishments depends on which employees are on duty at any given time. This is obviously not the business model we seek to emulate. Nonetheless, even companies which know our system inside and out and basically run their own OU paperwork programs should not be left on auto-pilot or like customers in these warehouse suit shops; companies need to know that we are there for them at all times, and with frequent changes of kosher contacts, and company buy-outs and mergers, we can never feel secure that constant contact and reinforcement are not needed.
We do and can provide first-class customer service. Intuiting and providing what a company needs before the company asks for it, being pro-active, quick to reply, keeping the company in the loop at all times, coming across as knowledgeable and eager to be of help, and showing that we care, are the keys to customer service success.