What shuls can learn from shoes

cowgirl bootsI purchased a pair of boots from Zappos.com, the online retailer, but they just weren’t right. I wanted to return them, but I also wanted to check out another pair of boots. Complicating what could have been a straightforward exchange was that I had initially paid through Paypal, which charged my American Express card, and I now wanted to apply a $50 gift certificate to the new pair of boots.

When I finally got around to dealing with this at 10 p.m., I was greeted by one of Zappos employees, whom I’ll call Tiffany.

“Hi. How are you today, Marla! What can I do for you!”

The exclamation points are deliberate. Tiffany’s questions were not so much queries as they were bursts of enthusiastic applause. I explained my predicament, which she not only followed, but also punctuated with appropriate notes of sympathy.

I was really feeling the love. Tiffany made my return sound like the thing she had been waiting for all day in her customer call center in Las Vegas.

“What else can I help you with!” crowed Tiff, my new best friend after the entire transaction had been concluded. Somehow, she made what could have been a retail nightmare sound like a fun day at Disney. She acted as if I had done her a great big favor by returning Zappos merchandise.

Zappos began as an online shoe store in 1999. Although it has since branched out into other merchandise, the company is still known for shoes, no shipping or return fees, and great customer service.

The stories about its customer service are legion: There’s the free pair of shoes sent to a man who arrived at a wedding shoeless; the customer service rep who bought a pair of shoes from a competitor for a customer, and delivered them to her in her Vegas hotel when Zappos ran out of stock; the flowers the company sent to a woman who bought six different shoes because her feet had been damaged in medical treatments.

I may not have bought the boots, but I was pretty sold on the experience. For many retailers, my complicated return would have been an annoyance. But Tiffany and Zappos responded in a way that made me want to shop there again, and to tell others to do the same.

Clever brand management, if you ask me.

And it’s something we in the Jewish communal world need to master. Not brand management, so much — that comes second — but how we get people to pay attention to what we offer and keep coming back for more.

This was the message that Ron Wolfson delivered when the Rockland Jewish Initiative, a local program that seeks to improve synagogue life, brought him to meet with community leaders in February. Wolfson, the Fingerhut Professor of Education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, co-president of Synagogue 3000, and a member of the Consortium for the Future of the Jewish Family, had a lot to say about what synagogues do and how they do it: badly.

Wolfson opened his lecture before he ever spoke, shaking hands with everyone who entered the social hall at the JCC. He told anecdote after anecdote about how synagogues make approaching shul life as difficult as possible. And yet, when he told the story about the cranky congregant who gets upset when he finds someone in “his” seat, Wolfson acknowledged that there are two sides to that story, both of which need balancing. The congregant is right to feel proprietary; regular seats are as much a part of shul culture as wine is at kiddush. It’s how a regular feels comfortable, and how others know who is absent and whether they should start worrying. But it was the unZappos-like approach to the answer that was wrong.

Wolfson, the author of “The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation Into a Sacred Community,” never shook his finger or chided anyone, except when he said most local synagogues had abysmal websites. And he’s right. If that’s the first point of entry your organizations offers to a young family who is actually looking for something Jewish to connect to, you better do a good job.

Wolfson’s advice is driven by anecdote and example. He is rife with stories of the synagogues that are doing it right, from the ones that have inexpensive make-your-own chicken soup Shabbat dinners for young families; to the ones that offer Starbucks-like experiences for young parents rather than nursery school drop-off service; to those that take their show on the road, Chabad-like, and have programs that are in public spaces, outside the shul, in order to break down the walls that keep people from joining.

Wolfson said that synagogues must pay attention to points of transition. Do your nursery school parents join when their children head to kindergarten? What does a synagogue require of members and dues before a bar mitzvah? What happens to those families after the simchah? Shuls need to know this information and keep track of it, so they can adjust and do better.

In focusing on young families, the ones we all want to get through our doors, Wolfson’s salient point was that a synagogue should foster relationships — between the rabbi and the young families at the nursery school and between the synagogue and those families. More important, the shul should help those young families build relationships with one another. If they feel they have made their friends through the synagogue, they will be less likely to leave as they pass through each of those transition points.

I can vouch for this. I made friends with families I met through New City Jewish Center’s preschool program when my children attended. We all joined the synagogue, are still friends, and belong to NCJC to this day.

Wolfson’s message is neither radical nor singular. Last year, Aaron Bisman, the founder of jDub Records and the recipient of a Joshua Venture Fellowship, who is decades younger than Wolfson, delivered a very similar message. Synagogues need to give a generation that feels alienated from Jewish communal life and is averse to joining real reasons to join, ones that make them feel welcomed and connected.

Of course, shuls are not shoes, and thinking about synagogue life as a product, and about prospective members as product consumers makes many uncomfortable. But if these people continue to stay away, synagogues will be out of business. In a county where several have already faded away in the past decade, and where merger talks are even now taking place, we should all take note.

No one is advocating that synagogues be something they are not. What they are promoting is that we learn a little from Tiffany. When someone has a problem with how we do things, we need to stop, take the time to listen, thank them for their input, and make them feel good about the entire interaction.

If you make them feel loved, they will become your best brand advocate.

This article originally ran in the Rockland Jewish Standard, click here to view the original. 

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