Service Almost Never Included

R. traveled to Hagedud Haivri by the parking lot of Shefayim commercial center to buy some Israeli designer clothes. At the checkout, she had to pay NIS 809 for two pairs of pants. She asked to pay cash, but was short NIS 9 - so the saleswoman refused to complete the sale.

R. traveled to Hagedud Haivri by the parking lot of Shefayim commercial center to buy some Israeli designer clothes. At the checkout, she had to pay NIS 809 for two pairs of pants. She asked to pay cash, but was short NIS 9 - so the saleswoman refused to complete the sale. R. therefore bought one pair, for NIS 404.50.

This happened about a month ago, at the trough of the deep economic recession, and after the customer from Tel Aviv had made such an effort to go to a shop nowhere near her home, because the place is publicized as a factory outlet. As she left, she wondered if she would ever go back there. The owner of the shop could not even be bothered to respond to repeated questions about the incident.

Despite some marked improvement in Israeli awareness of the importance of service in the past decade, and despite attempts to close the gap between the standards of service in Europe and Israel, it is rare to find a customer emerging very satisfied from a store - even rarer to find, in the words of the latest marketing surveys, stores that "create enthusiastic marketing."

In most cases Israeli customers are obliged to accept, with submissive understanding, the basic antipathy and negative attitude of salespeople. Customers have become accustomed to tossing the advertising brochures of the credit companies into the trash can, because they know that for 3,000 stars (collected over months of credit card use that earn a commission), they will be offered a set of cutlery with an exorbitant price addition, or a discount card worth NIS 20. The have also become accustomed to casting a suspicious eye over "sales" - a test of logic where one has to "find the catch."

Cheap flight tickets require exorbitant registration fees, the many installments offered carry high interest payments, and the final cost of the product after the highly touted "discount" is even higher than it usually is. Ayala Tidhar, the director of advertising for Isracard, says one has to look at the sales plans and the points at the overall level. "There are 1,800,000 Isracards in Israel and our work is very segmented. In the final analysis, the customer will always find something to order, if not this month, then next month. It's true the products are becoming increasingly expensive, and that is why it is hard to give them away just for points alone. That's why credit companies offer discounts in exchange for points."

She says the coupons offering discounts of only a few shekels have been successful in recent years, because Israelis have stopped being lazy. Company statistics reveal that tens of thousand of customers use the coupons each month. Israeli customers, she says, are looking mainly for low prices "not presents and not lotteries."

Israeli consumers can be divided into two groups. The first, left with no choice, gives up work days to wait for the washing machine or the service technician. The second group are consumers who care. Others consider them nudniks, and they consider themselves informed consumers. They will argue, will feel some satisfaction when they narrow, even slightly, the range of hours in which some technician will arrive, or when they manage to wrest a small discount out of a transaction.

But in the long run, the differences between the two groups are not very big - even the "nudniks" in the second group will have to accept bad service in the end. Dr. Yaron Timor, a lecturer in marketing at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, says it is hard to define service that is "gracious, professional and reliable." It is easier to define a good deal.

"Therefore, if there is a gap between the company's advertisements and what it is actually offering, and this gap becomes obvious by the time of purchase, this creates a bad taste. It's a complex feeling connected to service experiences."

Perhaps it is hard to define gracious service, but it's very easy indeed to find examples of ungracious service. One can start the morning in Siach Cafe (Coffee Talk) on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv. There they scold the customers for talking too loudly, snatch away the cover of their filter coffees without waiting at least three minutes, and generally object if they have the nerve to stay in the place too long for the owners' taste.

Afterward, one can try to get a bracelet that cost NIS 200 repaired at an Israeli designer shop in Tel Aviv, and be rewarded with the surly observation: "When you buy cheap, that's what you get." You can argue with a saleswoman at the Shilav store who will refuse to add hangers to a substantial purchase at the branch store. You can end your day with an overly lengthy wait for an electrical appliance that the shop was supposed to deliver forthwith.

"They say the Israeli consumer is quick to get angry and insist on receiving his or her due, but there is a merchant culture here that simply borders on fraud," says Galit Avishai, chairman of the Israel Consumers Council. "It's an anomaly - the consumers feels they have something coming to them, but don't know exactly what. Legislation in Israel is actually quite advanced, but it's not enough. We have to educate business owners as well as consumers. One idea is to develop a `consumer seal' document we are now working on. The document won't solve specific problems - that's a matter of human relations and there's nothing to do except boycott the place and don't return. But we are trying to create a standard." The council has recently established a consumers' club with the in-your-face slogan: "Who's for no longer being a sucker?"

"We want people to stop entering places with basically unfair practices, and we intend to publicize them," says Avishai. "To date 60,000 people have joined us." Dr. Talia Rymon, head of the Arison School of Business at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, says "the human factor is of tremendous importance in the level of service." She says that recent trends in the field of marketing deal not only with "sufficient" service, but with creating "enthusiastic" service.

"The idea is that the customer will be pleasantly surprised when he is in the store, that his loyalty to the place will be reinforced. There's a saying in marketing that `there's no better salesman that a satisfied customer' and it's clear that petty business people keep away future customers. At the moment there is insufficient awareness in Israel, but it is improving.

"There's no doubt that the United States is the world's model for advanced emphasis on service. You can return a product after two weeks, and get your money back, from chains like The Gap and large department stores like Bloomingdale's and F.A.O. Schwartz - and even from such designer stores as Donna Karan and Calvin Klein. Experience shows this reduces resistance [to decision making] at the time of purchase. A customer is not afraid to buy a product if he knows that he won't be stuck with it against his will. In Israel that is not the case."

Nevertheless, Rymon sees some improvement in Israeli service. "In service-oriented companies, there are now large departments that deal with customer service and devote a great deal of attention to it. For example, the cell phone companies - or El Al, which had a poor image and invested a great deal in improving its service. Smaller businesses must follow suit."

Dr. Jacob Hornik, a lecturer in marketing in the Leon Recanati Graduate School of Business Administration at Tel Aviv University, points to a general trend toward improvement, but says claims "it's clear that most of the companies in Israel are satisfied with a level of service that doesn't involve fraud. They think in most cases that's enough for the average customer."

Hornik says the level of service is, among other things, determined by the expectations of the consumer. "A customer expects more personal treatment in a store than in Kupat Holim [health maintenance organization]. Customers also see the technician who comes to their house as a representative of the company," he said.

"On the other hand, surveys we have conducted on the subject of service in banking have pointed up an interesting finding - there is a great deal of bitterness toward the system, yet an identification with bank employees," Hornik said. "The customer knows the bank is strictly a business, but the clerks are people who are only doing their job and they happen to be nice."

Buying an electrical appliance in Israel is still an ordeal that takes several days and includes waiting for the appliance to arrive and more waiting for the technician. Further, if a defective part is discovered at the outset - even if a screw is missing - there is no choice but to wait at least one more day. This endless wait was described decades ago in the skits of Ephraim Kishon and the Gashash Hahiver comedians, but there is a chance that soon it might be shortened.

Meir Rosenbaum, deputy director of marketing at Newpan, which distributes Toshiba, Grundig and Ariston products, promises that "in a few months we will start using a system to ensure that delivery and the technician's visit take place at the same time. Delivery is quick, but a technician has to explain to the customer how to use the appliance, and that can take up to an hour. Instructions are provided free except for VCRs that have become so cheap the instructions have to be provided at the customer's expense."

He says his company insists on good customer service, and something that's most important: "We must also pay the service people accordingly and allow them to get ahead."