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Customer Service

Lessons from Katz's Deli and Zappos

Although their customer service may seem world's apart, both firms understand the power of giving customers what they want, not trying to 'surprise and delight'

Katzs Deli, NYCA lot has changed since 1888. Back then a business did more than cater to its customers, it bonded in community with them. This was the year that the iconic Katz’s Delicatessen opened in the lower East Side of New York city, where so many Jews would settle during the next 50 years.

Katz’s became a congregating point in this neighborhood of European immigrants: Friday franks and beans, Yiddish menu items, and a service to ship foods to the sons fighting in WWII (“Send a salami to your boy in the army”). Fast forward 125 years, and I am with my family visiting Katz’s and enjoying the best pastrami sandwich of my life. Yet, something is missing: the customer service.

As many online reviewers of the deli agree, there is no explanation for the antiquated “ticket” you are handed as you enter. There is no warm greeting from employees, whose attention is difficult to get even during off hours. There is no explanation for why you must order fries at one “station” even if the only employee you see is at a neighboring station.

If you manage to get your food, you will find that there is no sign indicating that credit cards are accepted at the counter, but not the main cashier by the door. And if you do not return all the tickets you were handed, you are threatened with a $50 lost ticket fee.

Being a customer at Katz’s is like being a stranger in the big city; you know there is something great here, but apparently you have to learn where and how to find it.

Forget About Delighting Customers

Contrary to popular opinion, CEB research shows that delighting customers by giving them more than what they expected does not make them more loyal. Simply meeting their expectations is no worse than exceeding their expectations. As if to prove the point, my family will definitely go back to Katz’s. Strange as it seems, Katz’s is providing the experience its customers expect.

The immigrant Jewish community has disappeared from Katz’s tables, largely replaced by local workers seeking lunch-hour dining and tourists seeking a glimpse of the New York lifestyle. The 1.6 million residents of Manhattan do not expect warm greetings and friendly chit chat. They want great meats and kosher style meals served at a fast pace.

Katz’s has a reputation for being a true New York experience, which is what thousands of daily tourists want. Katz’s has guaranteed foot traffic, and they meet their customers’ expectations. And once you figure out how to order and pay, you feel like you are a true New Yorker. Why wouldn’t you come back?

Know What Your Customers Want, and Provide It

Now, all this may sound the exact opposite of the many exhortations in recent years to take customer service lesson from firms like US online shoe seller Zappos. True, Katz’s customer experience is designed quite differently from Zappos but both companies focus keenly on meeting their customers’ expectations, not all customers’ expectations.

When shopping for shoes instead of pastrami, customers expect more than quality selections and fast turnaround time. They want to be able to try on different shoes, see what they look like with a particular outfit, and maybe even accessorize the total look. Because Zappos is an online retailer, they have to provide free shipping and returns to meet those expectations.

Furthermore, Zappos associates have to communicate with customers as if they were right there next to them instead of thousands of miles away. No stereotypical call center with keypad responses will do. In December 2013, Zappos made a seemingly radical decision to eliminate its manager hierarchy.

This isn’t as crazy as it sounds if you consider that giving more autonomy and responsibility to its highly selected and well trained customer reps will ensure customers’ expectations will be met, even when shipping is late, sizes are confused, or colors do not match. The people who know the customers best are the ones on the line with them, so Zappos’ leaders get out of the way.

Retaining customers giving them what they want and not worrying about exceeding those expectations. Depending on the details of your business, you may want Zappos’s “no holds barred” approach to satisfying the customer, or you may only need Katz’s “big city” approach.

The key though is to be like both of them, and find out what’s expected of you.


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