Know your customer, customer relations, customer engagement

Does Your Customer Want a Bagel With a “Schmeer?”

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’ll know that until last year I was a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker. There are things that make New York unique, such as the Statue of Liberty, the New York Yankees — and Jewish delis: Katz’s, the Carnegie, and the 2nd Avenue Deli, to name just a few.

The are renowned for the lines of customers waiting to order pastrami on rye, please, or a bagel with a schmeer (cream cheese). But what distinguishes these delis is an intimate knowledge of their customers. They know who their customers are and what they want.

A Jewish Deli in Sarasota?

This morning I was up early for an appointment and decided to stop by Sol’s NYC Delicatessen for a bagel, without the schmeer. It was quiet at that hour and I commented to the waitress that a real New York Deli would have a menu with a thousand pages — OK, that’s an exaggeration, but if you can’t find it on the menu, you can order just about anything at a Jewish deli in New York.

She mentioned our conversation to the head chef and partner, Solomon Shenker, who came running out to dispute my claim.

A former New Yorker himself, he told me he had trained as a teenager at the 2nd Avenue Deli. He, too, opened his fairly new deli with a large menu. But instead of praising all the offerings, his customers said they were simply confused. So he pared down the menu to Sarasota-size and business is booming. He listened to his customers and they rewarded him with their business.

He also took pains to let me know that the dough for their bagels was shipped in from the Bronx and they cured their own pastrami. I reassured my waitress that we weren’t having an argument, just two brash New Yorkers enjoying some bantering back forth. Here is Sol below.

New York Jewish Deli customer engagement

The Agency Blew It

My encounter this morning reminded me of the importance of understanding your clients. Years ago, I was part of an agency team pitching a major professional services firm.

The New York Office had just been open a few months and there were just four of us, nestled within the offices housing our sister advertising agency. For two weeks we slaved over the proposal, answering every question in the RFP.  It was a masterful proposal, but we were up against several global PR firms. Did we stand a chance?

We flew to Chicago where each agency was given one hour to present. I have to say we wowed them. They loved our proposal. Then back to New York to wait. A day later we got the call — they picked another agency. It was safer because how could they explain to management choosing a no-name PR agency? We were all understandably down in the dumps.

A couple of days later, my boss received a call from the potential client, saying they had changed their minds and were awarding us their account!

What happened?

As the client told it, the agency and client had their first planning meeting. As a joke, the client walked into the conference room carrying a tray with glasses of water and a towel over his arm. No response from the agency. Bunch of stiffs.

At the end of that planning meeting, the PR Manager and Marketing Director looked at each other in dismay and the Director said, “I think we’ve made a terrible mistake.” The agency didn’t pick up on the social cues. The chemistry wasn’t there. So that afternoon they informed the other agency that they were fired.

That was one of the highlights of my career. I still have that proposal. We went on to do great work for the client. We understood what they wanted and needed. We liked each other.

That probably is the basis of the most productive and enjoyable client relationships. You’ve also got to know if the customer wants a bagel with or without a schmeer.

Leave a Reply


  1. Your memory about how the agency blew it shows how in life we always have to be flexible. When something unexpected happens we have to adapt and make the best of it. If the custormer wants a bagel with a schmeer we have to deliver it. Even if we prefer pastrami.

  2. I liked how you tied your personal story about the Deli to talking about how important it is to know your customers want. I agree it is all about learning who the customers are and knowing what they want.

  3. Knowing what a customer wants and being able to anticipate those wants really does make such a difference. The editing clients I most enjoy working with are the ones I’ve been with the longest because we know what the other wants and will deliver. My own NYC bagel story is not a good one though. Sometimes establishments take new customers for granted because they think they are just there for one visit and won’t be coming back.

    • Jeri — Establishments not treating a customer well because she may not come back irritates the heck out of me, too. That’s why I stopped going to restaurants during Restaurant Week in NY. I always felt they thought they were doing me a favor.

  4. Hey Jeannette,

    I like the Bagel thing here.:)

    You know when you try to get the attention of the investors or the marketers then many things should be taken care of.

    You should never ignore your clients. They should be your priority. Solve their problems and get the positive feedback.

    Thanks for sharing this post with us.
    Have a great day.

    • Ravi — agree, that solving customer problems is a priority. Their problems become your problems deserving of your utmost attention.

  5. Great story and a good lesson for any business. I also think there is a tendency to underrate the “click” factor because sometimes, no matter how good the pitch or company, if you and the client don’t click then chances are slim there will be a business partnership, at least not for very long.

    • Marquita — Chemistry is so important. Picking up on social cues is essential to any relationship. It’s not only the words you use, but your body language which can be even more powerful.

  6. Would not have suspected a Jewish deli to show such flexibility. My favorite area traditional Jewish deli is Hobby’s in Newark where the waitresses wear T-shirts that say “established before you were born.” As per the client story, good for them for changing their mind before it was too late. Many find the choice of a giant agency to be a mistake much later in the game.

    • Ken — I don’t know Hobbby’s in Newark, but there are great delis everywhere, not just in NY. Re the agency, they would have been disappointed with the larger agency because they would have gotten junior people on their account whereas we staffed the account with senior people and gave them great results.

  7. This is a great write up.

    We should be willing to adapt in order to meet the needs of our customers; however bizarre their requests. There are always other organisations they can do business with therefore we cannot afford to become complacent.

    • Phoenicia — with the speed of change these days, we do need to adapt to the needs of our customers. Sometimes our customers themselves don’t know what they want so need to anticipate their needs with less than perfect information.

  8. Hi Jeannette, love your story about the Deli. Guess the owner was smart enough to know when he needed to simplify things for the current audience. It’s amazing how different people are region by revion, or even state to state. Good thing he was able to notice and adjust quickly and make his business a succees.

    • Susan — I sent the link to my post to the owners and they said they had to make a lot of changes in the menu to accommodate to local needs. They give customers a form on leaving asking for their opinions about the food and what they would like to see added/changed/deleted. Smart.