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Mastering the Art of Customer Service

Season 1: Episode 39


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A quality product is important, especially when it comes to a New York bagel. But even with the best flavor, customer service is still key. In this episode, Vadim Nayman, owner of Bagel Master, shares how he believes he can solve any problem without saying no to his customers. He also shares the inside scoop on using social media to stay top of mind. Reviewer Karen N. shares her experience with the business and keeps her coming back for over 20 years.

From the Yelp Blog: Read more on the lessons Vadim learned from his father and how he applies them to the business today—from offering a diverse spread of options to getting to know your customers. “My dad taught me that the customer is always the number one priority,” he said. “He knew every customer in this store. He knew what they ate. He knew how they liked it… He got to know what most of these people did for a living.”

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every episode I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind it.

Lets see what’s behind this week’s review.

KAREN: I had become vegan and they actually had non dairy cream cheese, which was wonderful. And back seven, eight years ago, to find non-dairy cream cheese at the bagel store was one in a trillion. So I was a happy happy person.

EMILY: That’s Karen. She drove a school bus for many years and would stop in Bagel Master frequently for her regular order. Let’s hear the rest of Karen’s review.

KAREN: If you want the usual tasteless wonder bread sort of bagels that have become the standard on Long Island, don’t come here! If you are interested in what a real bagel should taste like and the proper texture of quality and the ingredients, close your eyes and taste the whole wheat, pumpernickel, or rye flours.

I have no Jewish ancestry but have lived on Long Island most of my life. And I will tell you if you want to know what a true bagel should taste like, what the mouth feels should be, then you must come to the experts.

Since I started to work in the area over 30 years ago, I have found the only bagel worthy of the name. Yes, parking can be an issue. Yes, the line in the store can be out the door. And though the staff tries its hardest, sometimes an overly fussy, feeling-entitled, well-dressed customer can and will take very long to be satisfied.

If you want a proper bagel, these are the trials one must endure. The silver lining is that if you get the same simple thing every time and are there fairly regularly, the staff begins to see you first, and knowing you have your proper amount of money ready, they will often jump a customer or two to pass a bag expecting your money in the same exchange.

I have frequently parked a full-size school bus in the CVS parking lot next door. Picked up my naked, everything, whole wheat flat and been back on the bus in under five minutes. Love and miss you guys at Bagel Master. Home in Amityville there are three bagel shops and not one comes close to your bagels.

EMILY: As a frequent customer, it’s no surprise that Karen had a lot to share. The high quality ingredients are important to her, and the taste is certainly what sets Bagel Master apart. But there’s also something about the environment in the shop: long lines and the hustle and bustle of regulars getting their orders quickly as they dart to catch the train. Karen set the stage for what to expect if you’re going to try out Bagel Master for the first time. There’s going to be a line! But for a proper bagel, these are the trials one must endure.

Let’s hear from owner Vadim on how his family came to own Bagel Master over 30 years ago.

VADIM: My family purchased the store in 1990 from the original owner who owned the name Bagel Master and had a few other stores, but we were the original location. I started helping out when I was 14. Mother’s Day, which is coincidentally one of our busiest weekends of the year, almost 23 some odd years ago I started helping out. And a lot of people taught me like, your dad’s not your dad at work. Your dad is your boss. And I really took that to heart because I’ve seen so many places, people who don’t earn their colleagues’ respect who come in, it’s a very different thing, and people may not ever get true respect from their colleagues or people who may end up being their employee.

EMILY: Vadim’s family immigrated to America from Russia. His dad came first and bought Bagel Master. He set up a life for his family, and two years later, they joined him. At that time Vadim was 6. So still a few years before he was officially in the store every weekend working and learning from his dad. But there wasn’t any special treatment. Growing up Vadim never thought about taking over the family business. He actually worked at law firms for several summers and prepped to take the LSATs. When the day finally came, he went all the way to the test, walked in, and then shortly after walked out. He was ready to be an entrepreneur. And his dad had paved the way for how to be successful.

VADIM: Something that my dad really taught me was customer service, one. First of all, no doesn’t exist. So there’s no such thing as no. If we don’t have something, you figure out a way, you get creative, you offer something else. You kind of do whatever you can for the customer. No is a word that’s really unnecessary, and I was bred to believe that, so I very, very strongly push that narrative. There’s always something there’s always a way around no. Especially in customer service.

My dad taught me that the customer is always the number one priority. You have to make sure they’re happy. I learned from watching him. He knew every customer in this store. He knew what they ate. He knew how they liked it, and he got to know the community and he got to know what most of these people did for a living. You know, we’ve done so many of their family occasions, whether it be baby namings, brisses, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, sweet sixteens, to weddings, to funerals, you know, there’s so many kids now. Our peers who were doing stuff for their kids. And I’m like, oh my God, I was there when we did this for you. It’s such a crazy circle, but that’s what he taught me.

He really knew how important it is to know your clientele, how important it is to be there face in and face out. Like, listen, we’re here, I’m here at a quarter to five or five o’clock most days of the week. And leading by example, leading the staff, like so many of my friends to this day will will say, well, you’re the owner. Why don’t you take a holiday? Why don’t you take this or that? How can I expect my staff to be here if I don’t lead by example, especially on holidays? They want to be with their families. They want to be doing their own thing. And if I expect them to be here, I have to lead the way in doing so.

EMILY: It’s clear that Bagel Master has a culture rooted in customer service. Started and displayed at the top and carried throughout the team of staff. They prioritize the customer experience and create connections with their community. Alex, Vadim’s dad, started that sense of community in the ’90s and it’s created lasting memories and relationships through generations of families that have lived on Long Island. You can see those connections in repeat customers like Karen and the quick handing off of her regular order while she gives back exact change.

KAREN: I don’t believe I was exclusively the only one that did that, even because it was simple. I believe there were others that always got even a white with an egg and ham or whatever, and they always got, yeah, same thing. And I believe there were probably others that had a little ball of the exact correct money in their hand. It literally was a reach for the bag and give them money sort of thing.

EMILY: And it’s not just a way to make a regular feel special. It truly helps from an operational perspective as well. Remember that particularly for the morning rush, there’s almost always a line out the door.

VADIM: We’re one of the busier over-the-counter stores in our area, in the industry, and moving a line as quickly as you possibly can is something super important. I have a very large staff. I have up to 15 members of our team, back of the house, in front of the house, where we break up certain tasks to be able to do that. As I mentioned before, knowing people is something my staff is good at doing. And just like Karen had mentioned, we have so many customers that we know I can move three or four customers in and out, or any of my staff members can just because we know what they’re going to get. And if that’s what they’re getting on a daily basis, why am I going to hold up an entire line? And it gets done so swiftly that most people don’t even realize, but they’re so happy because the line’s moving along, that it doesn’t really matter.

EMILY: Let’s take a quick break.


EMILY: And we’re back! You might have caught on that Bagel Master serves more than just bagels. They have quite an extensive food menu with soups, sandwiches, and salads. It was a large menu when Vadim’s dad first bought the business, but a lot of changes have been made since then.

VADIM:  I’ve been running the store for probably about 12, 13, some odd years now. I kind of went with the modern, I added the modern take on things. There’s so many salads, so many different things that I brought because it’s not just about bagels. People have become very health-conscious people. You have to give people every option. And it was very hard.

We had a partner who was a little more old school. Whether or not he was a minor partner, whatever it was, I was fighting two older generations who were like, well, why is this necessary? Like you’re making things more complicated. And I had to kind of update my staff to be in line with understanding my idea, understanding my goal. If you’re not giving that, if you’re not offering that option, people are gonna find another option. Our new logo that I coined, I don’t know, four or five years ago, it’s more than just the bagel store.

And that goes into so many different things because I try to be so involved in the community, just like my dad was. But in terms of menu items, you have to be open to everything. You know, there’s the celiacs, there’s people who like our coffee bar now. You know, everybody laughed, it was milk and skim milk and half and half for everybody, their generation. I carry every creamer, every almond milk, every oat milk. And yes, Starbucks created that phenomenon. But if you don’t offer that, then they’re just only going to go to Starbucks. So you need to be on top of your game.

Quality also is something that’s so important. My dad always bought the highest quality, everything, all our ingredients. We actually use probably the cleanest flour in existence. It’s non-bleach, never bleached. And it’s things like that where some of my friends in the industry laugh at me cause they’re like, well, you’re spending X amount. You’re so stupid. And I’m like, sure, but I’m giving my customer the best quality product that I could possibly give them. And at the end of the day, it’s so important. Quality. An important aspect of all this. And people need to appreciate that from our side, not just the consumer side. And I see it lost in so many businesses where people just nickel and dime. People will pay for quality. And that’s how it goes.

EMILY: Vadim made a conscious decision to carry options and alternatives. At the end of the day it widens the customer base. It expands the menu to friends, family or colleagues who are dairy free, vegan, or gluten intolerant. And it allows them to compete with the big guys, who often carry all the milks, plant-based add-ons, and soy alternatives.

For Karen, that vegan cream cheese and the other high quality products are what called her to review.

KAREN: I’m an extremely enthusiastic environmentalist and advocate for a whole food, plant-based diet. I’ve been a vegetarian since I read Diet For a Small Planet. I strictly Yelp: Is this place—is this restaurant or facility or nail salon, whatever it is—is this place where you can get non-animal agriculture associated products? Be it food, nail polish, or whatever else.

EMILY: And Bagel Master is that place. Their vegan cream cheese drew her in, but the quality and the service kept her coming back for years and years. You never know who you might attract by carrying an additional option or offering. And now, Karen is a customer who not only drives 30 plus minutes when she wants a bagel, but she also stops strangers in public looking for a bagel shop recommendation and make sure they know about Bagel Master

KAREN: We got to chatting and the woman asked: She first never had a bagel, and where should she have a bagel? And I popped up and started to say or speak of Bagel Master.

And some guy who was actually another salesman popped in and interrupted to say, you have to go wherever it was he was about to say, and I said, “nope! If you want a bagel”—and this is a true story, we have a $700 bill for our new recliner. I literally interrupted him as I’m fairly loud spoken and good at interrupting, if I want to. And I said, “no, don’t listen to this guy. I don’t know what else he knows, but don’t listen. If you want to know what a bagel should taste like, especially if you want something besides a plain white one, you have to go here, who’s been doing it the same way for at least 30 years. And everybody else’s a copycat.”

And again, here, down on this, any place else on Long Island, you got two or three in every town, but in Syosset in general, I don’t know a bagel store until you get to Huntington, which is a bit of a drive down Jericho Turnpike.

Jericho Turnpike is a major thoroughfare, east-west. If you’re not on the highway, one of the only ones that goes east-west, and there isn’t another bagel store between Syosset and Huntington. And to me that says it all.

EMILY: I don’t think there’s a better scenario! A customer who left a great review and then continues to tell everyone they know about your business. But the cost of doing business isn’t always just tons of great five-star reviews. Vadim’s seen it all, and he engages with them all too! Here he is sharing a bit on his experiences with reviews and why engagement is important.

VADIM: As a business owner, I will go to a manager or a business owner any time just to let them know. And not to criticize them, but to let them know, because if a problem is not fixed, if they don’t know, they’re not going to be able to fix it. And things go unnoticed. Things happen. Places are busy. Sometimes somebody could be having a day and just miss something. And if they don’t know, they find out the hard way with a one-star review.

And it’s like, I personally—and not just on Yelp, but on every platform—I comment back on every review. Good, bad, or ugly. Because I think it’s very important. Because why would you only respond to the negative? You have to reach out to the people that took their time to give you a positive review and let them know that you appreciate them. You know I think it’s super important to do that.

I also try to reach out because I try to solve the problem. I try to make the customer, you know, I try to see if there’s any way we can make it up to them. And I hate to say it, but like if we make it up to you and you take down that review, it’s, you know, ultimately I do want to fix your problem, but I also want the world to see. And I almost would rather people not delete their reviews—keep the original, do like a re-review and say this was fixed. This person took their time to fix it and reach out to me. Then just delete their review. Because it’s important for people to see that.

EMILY: Vadim makes a great point! Sometimes seeing a business owner reach out and resolve an issue that a customer had is more valuable than the negative review being removed entirely. Remember that when it comes to responding to reviews publicly in general. That’s a great way as a business owner to reflect your customer service practices to the world. You don’t want to use your review responses to necessarily get into a back and forth argument with the reviewer, but instead show that you reached out to find a resolution.

And Vadim’s engagement approach doesn’t just apply to reviews. He was an early adopter of social media for his business and continues to engage with it as an impactful communication and marketing tool. To close us out, here he is sharing a bit more on the importance of social media and what he has found to be the game-changing approach.

VADIM: We were actually probably one of the first businesses on Facebook as a business and people, including my dad, laughed at me and said: “Why? It’s a waste of time. You’re taking time away from the customers, you’re taking time.”

And what I realized was it’s the easiest way to touch base with your customers. We had a track record up until COVID, we had not closed the single day in I believe it was about 19 years. Yeah, not a single day.

We’re open every day of the year up until COVID, literally there is not a single day. So it was funny because still no matter what, customers will call and say: “Are you open? What are your hours?” So one of the first things that I started doing on Facebook is every holiday I would come in and I would say we’re open, we’re open from 6:00 AM until 3:00 PM. We are offering this, we’re offering that, whatever it is, as simple as it is.

Then the picture started, then the video started. I would try, and food photography is in my opinion, one of the most difficult things. So yeah, I would say about five years ago somebody who, he’s actually one of the top food bloggers in New York now, if not, you know, the country, he reached out to me, we had some mutual friends and he said: “Well, I do this. And I watch what you do. Why don’t we work together?” And I said: “Well, I don’t know. I don’t like spending money on something like that.” And then I realized if I’m able to pay somebody to do the photography and everything else, one, it’s going to be 1000 times better, which it is.

If anybody, anybody who looks at our store’s Instagram page, if they don’t think that it’s up to par, I will call bullshit on that all day long. It’s so much easier because they do a lot of the posts. I approve everything. I also don’t allow them to respond to comments or respond to DMs. I handle all that. And it’s so important to me because of that personal touch and being able to respond. I know who the people are and if I don’t know who you are, I will research who you are before I respond. And I think that’s super important.

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