Daily Israel Report

Customer Service: The Next Great Challenge for Israeli Business

Israeli business has advanced a great deal in recent years - but there's still one thing missing, says visiting Professor Jean-Charles Cheba
By David Lev
First Publish: 7/28/2011, 6:35 PM / Last Update: 7/28/2011, 9:25 PM

Israel is now one of the world's most advanced countries when it comes to science and technology – but it's still in the “third world” when it comes to customer relations. Until Israeli entrepreneurs and businesses get over the “hump” of learning how to treat customers – and workers – properly, the economy will not be able to reach its full potential.

That was the message to students of the School of Business Administration of the College of Management Academic Studies (COMAS) in Rishon Lezion by Professor Jean-Charles Chebat of HEC University, Montreal, Canada, acknowledged as one of the world's leading authorities on consumer behavior and retail customer service. “The country has come a long way, but there is still much to do when it comes to customer service,” Professor Chebat told Arutz Sheva. “It's not a matter of just doing the right thing; without proper customer service businesses are losing out on sales and income. In the end, customers – and workers – go to where they are treated right.”

For some reason, though, customer service is not a top priority of many Israeli businesses – and Chebat thinks he knows why. “I have been visiting Israel for many years, and I usually take El Al,” he says. “In the past I have not been exactly satisfied with the way they treated me as a customer, but over the past few years I think they have made great strides.”

And when did El Al have this change of heart? When the government opened up Israel's skies to foreign competition, and stopped giving El Al preference. “Poor service in Israel is not a matter of culture, it's a structural issue. Israel is a small country with limited population, so the opportunities for a large market with many competitors do not exist in many areas of the economy,” he says. But opening up those sectors to foreign competition will quickly cause surly business owners to change their tune and treat their customers right, he says.

In his lecture, Professor Chebat stressed specific ideas Israeli entrepreneurs and managers could use to increase customer satisfaction – and make their companies more money. For those used to Western-style customer service, Chebat's suggestions sound pretty basic: Listen to your customers, pay attention to their needs, offer them a quick, effective solution, and thank them for their suggestions. “The key for managers to remember is to understand and remember that they do not have a 'lock' on their customers and cannot hold them captive. This is what destroyed the socialist economies,” he said.

Just as important, Chebat says, is rewarding employees, especially the ones that are on the “front lines” of customer service. “The front line employees have a key role to play,” he said. “They are the ones that have to listen to customers and solve problems, and hold their emotions back.” It's a lousy job, too – customer service people are overworked and underpaid, and when they successfully solve problems despite pressure, red tape, and customer abuse, they deserve to be rewarded. “You want to keep service employees happy, since they are the people the customer sees,” Chebat says. “Although there are many ways to reward and employee, cash is usually the best – especially if the employee made money or saved money for the business.”

Considering his ideas on competition and the importance of having more of it in Israel, one question begged to be asked: What does he think of Prime Minister Netanyahu's performance. “I'm not Israeli, so I won't give an opinion on politics, but in terms of his desire to open the markets here up to more foreign competition, he is doing the right thing, as he did when he was Finance Minister, when he did a stellar job,” says Chebat. “He is applying what he learned in the U.S. to Israel's economy, and he definitely deserves credit for that.”