It was 8 in the morning, two hours before Capriotti's in Reno was scheduled to open, when the call came in and the owner happened to be there, prepping for the day.

"I need to pick up 5 large subs in 20 minutes. I'm driving straight through and need those sandwiches to take to a meeting."

The owner explained that the shop didn't open for another couple of hours, he would be happy to take the order and have them ready right at ten, when they opened the door.

 

"I'm just driving through", explained the driver, "I'll be long out of town by 10. Can you help me out?"

The owner, having great skills, a desire to succeed in business, and understanding his competition, said:

"Yes, of course. I'll have them ready when you get here. Just knock and I'll unlock the door."

 

The customer came in about 30 minutes later, purchased the sandwiches, and left. It was a few days later that the owner received a call from a friend of that customer, explaining that his buddy was so pleased with the sandwiches and the service, that he wanted to use the shop to cater a meeting in the area. That second customer ordered more than $1,500 worth of sandwiches.

How many ways can a sandwich shop differentiate itself? There's the quality of the bread, the quality of the fillings, the size of the sandwich, the variety of fillings, and price. Many, many sandwich shops can compete in those criteria. There's a shop in Montana called the Staggering Ox that differentiates itself by using oddly shaped large loaves they hollow out. They're called Clubfoot sandwiches. Other than the bread, though, and perhaps some interesting combinations of ingredients and sauces, how can they differentiate? How will they compete with Subway and Quizno's? SERVICE. Granted, Capriotti's makes some killer sandwiches. I would drive significantly out of my way to get a large Italian sub with all the toppings. But really, it's the service that keeps me coming back. When I receive anything less than stellar service, I have to wonder how badly the owner of that business wants to succeed? It makes me think the owner just isn't hungry enough. With so many decent sandwich shops around, service is the key to survival and success.

Customer: You never know whether a service provider can or will bend the rules for you, you can only ask. Of course, being direct, kind, patient, and understanding what you are asking will help. Being a considerate customer, you will more likely find an advocate on the other end of the conversation. Pass along the good experience, especially when a company gives you special treatment. The only way for these companies to survive and thrive is for people like you to return and bring friends. Good service brings you back, exceptional service brings you back with friends and a positive story to share.

Owner/Server: You prove you want to keep your customers by going out of your way in meeting their needs. By providing exceptional service, you not only increased your opportunities for positive feedback and a return customer, you helped your customers meet goals and look good. Who doesn't want to look good for their peers? Want to survive and thrive in the restaurant business? Service is your differentiation point. Find your service niche among options with which you can live. Can you offer flexible hours of service? What about including a fountain drink with a meal? Lemon slices in your water glasses? Servers that are empowered to give a discount or complementary drink or dessert when a meal takes too long? Work with your servers and cooks to come up with ideas. Because your front-of-the-house employees know what works with their customers to keep them coming back, they are great resources for brainstorming customer service ideas. Implement your special service ideas quietly and consistently. You cannot create your own reputation, your customers must!

 

There are plenty of ways to lose a customer,
here are my top three:

  • Misspell and Mispronounce His Name, Consistently

Want to lose a customer really fast? Misspell her name. It's a pretty simple thing, just ignore the signature line on her email, don't double-check the email address or letterhead, and avoid any written evidence such as her business card, LinkedIn profile, or on the Contact Us page on her website. Call her to check in and be sure to completely butcher the sound of her name. Never admit to not knowing! To ask "how is your name pronounced?" will look like total failure on your part. Don't ever do that.

He consistently mispronounced the vendor's name. Each time they were on a conference call, he would mispronounce the name even after introductions at the beginning of the call were made, correctly pronouncing it. It seemed unintentional until I realized he was unhappy with the service. It occurred to me that he incorrectly pronounced his name (perhaps subconsciously, perhaps not) out of lack of respect. Passive aggressive, maybe? This is unacceptable. If you have a problem with a person's work, tell them about it, do not be disrespectful.

  • Be Dismissive of Her Concerns

She's angry, so let her know how unreasonable she is. Ask if it's

that time of the month,

that's sure to get things moving in a conversation. Make sure you have excuses ready for every concern she mentions, and definitely don't acknowledge your possible error. If she's wrong, point out her mistake clearly and don't let her know you understand her frustration, that's bound to make her think she can get away with something.

Don't admit it if she's right, there's potential liability in that! A customer isn't thatvaluable, after all, she certainly won't share her bad experience with every single email address in her address book, her 1,500 friends on Facebook, or her 500+ connections on LinkedIn.

The sandwich was seriously spicy, much more so than the last time the customer ordered it. When asked how her meal was, she answered honestly

this is too spicy for me to eat. My mouth is burning. I understand it's supposed to be spicy, but I've ordered this twice before and it wasn't THIS spicy.

The waitress nodded and walked away, returning with the menu in her hands, opened to the page. She pointed at the description and said: "it says SPICY right on the menu." The customer asked her to take the sandwich because it was too spicy to eat. A little while later, the owner returned to the table "I tasted the sandwich and you are correct, the chef was a little heavy-handed with the cayenne pepper. Would you like it remade or would you like to order something else? We will not charge you for the sandwich."

It was a large party and most of the guests were finishing up their dinners. The gesture was too little, too late. The server should have immediately pulled the plate and asked for a new sandwich from the kitchen. Even if the customer was wrong, the sandwich should have been replaced. She hasn't been back to the restaurant and does not recommend it to anyone.

  • Treat Employees Badly in Front of Them

If you really want to lose a customer fast, be disrespectful of your colleagues and those you manage. Yelling at them is a really good way to let your customer know you don't want her around. Correct your employees, loudly, in front of other customers and their peers. You don't want your customer to think your employees can get away with doing things differently from how you would do them.

Right in front of customers, the manager chastised the waitress for wearing thewrong shoes. He teased her, saying her legs looked silly in the shoes she was wearing. He actually called her lazy (she was anything but), and told her if she didn't get the right shoes by her next shift she shouldn't bother coming in to work. The customers at the adjacent table were shocked. They had ordered but hadn't received their meals; they walked out and glared at the manager. As they left, they slipped a $20 bill into the waitress's hand (these were seniors on a fixed budget, $20 was a huge gesture), and told the manager they would never return. They had been regular customers, same time, same day every week - not any more. The waitress did not come back for another shift.

Want to keep your customers? Be one. Be a customer - observe and recognize the good and the bad in the service around you. Emulate the good, be honest enough with yourself to know whether you have something in common with the bad. Make the choice to be good, to be compassionate, to be successful.

Be a good customer to get good service. Be a good customer to give good service.

Shoes photo credit: Michael Shane, Flikr

I'm always collecting customer service stories for this blog, but when I'm on vacation I find myself significantly more observant. I attribute that to the fact that I unplug on vacation. I rarely check my email and pretty much avoid the internet when I'm away from work, whether I'm on my own or with my family. It allows me to be more introspective, to observe, and to really consider the experience afterward, to absorb and relate the experience as a point of reference.

When planning our trip, we use Yelp! a lot. Reviews of Tastes of the Valley in Pismo Beach, California, were good and Yelp! rarely leads us in the wrong direction. This time, though, it was a mistake. We arrived at a small venue with a huge selection of wine, which is good. A table of four was seated and no one was at the tasting bar so we sat there. We like to connect with our hosts, we're not there just to taste, so the bar is the best option for us. The server, while sweet and pretty, was not passionate about her work. It was like pulling teeth to get her to engage in a conversation even though she wasn't terribly busy. We have been to a few tastings over the years and the best ones usually begin with questions from the host: What kinds of wine do you like? Sweet? Dry? White? Red? Not having any of those questions asked, we ordered a flight of white wine and a flight of red to share.

When we finished, she asked if we wished to stay for a glass. She didn't sell us bottles of wine, didn't make any specific recommendations. If you like wine, you know these tastings are designed to SELL WINE. I ordered a glass of the chardonnay we tried and Bob ordered a glass of the cabernet, and...

I'm sorry, we're out of that bottle.

She actually gave us a taste of wine from a bottle she couldn't sell to us. So he asked for another red from our flight... they were out of that one, too. Weird. She offered a beautiful glass of a Sangiovese, which he accepted. When we went to pay for our glasses and flights, the one glass Bob ordered was $18. We left without buying a single bottle.

Juxtapose that experience with our tastes the very next day at a beach town a few miles north of Pismo, in Avila Beach. Alapay Cellars is a small (5,000 cases/year) winery that has been around for about 13 years. We happened to be there on a day when the winemaker himself was hosting the tasting room. He had a group at the tasting bar so we snagged a table. He immediately acknowledged our presence with a smile and a nod. When we were seated he came over to introduce himself and to deliver glasses and tasting menus. He had beautiful introductions to each of his wines, left the bottle for viewing on the table, and genuinely wanted to know our thoughts. He served each taste at exactly the right temperature. The wine was good, some of it outstanding. Between his hospitality and the quality of his wines, he sold us six bottles to be shipped to our home to arrive after our vacation had ended. We left feeling great about our experience, terrific about our purchases, and ready to tell everyone about this wine.

Wine taster: Remember that you are being hosted. Be considerate and really listen to the host when she tells you the story of the wine. It's tempting to be snobby or to share your experienced palate - don't. Let the host do her job and sit back to enjoy the experience.

Wine tasting host: You don't have to be the winemaker or owner to be passionate about the wine you serve. If you aren't passionate about wine and about sharing your love for the product, perhaps you should consider other work. Or you can learn enough about the wine you are serving to understand why you're there and enjoy the passion for wine your tasters most likely experience. Remember that your primary purpose is to sell wine! Your secondary purpose is the educate and engage with your customers. Even the most experienced wine buyer loves to hear the story of the wine you are serving. As a matter of fact, sometimes the story sells the wine more than the taste. How many of us have purchased wine for a beautiful or interesting label?

"Your hours are 8 to 5. Your lunch time is between 11 & 1. I don't want to have this conversation again." She followed up with an email stating four arbitrary rules, similar to this one.

I had mentioned my son's elementary school concert was at 2:00 so I thought I'd skip lunch, go to the concert, and if it took a bit longer than the half hour, I'd work past 5 to make up the time. Granted, we had that conversation a few months before and her response with a condescending smile was "Sarah, lunch is between 11 & 1! You can take vacation time to go the concert."

I was not a shift worker. Maybe she missed the part of my job that said professional. Or maybe she didn't realize I wasn't hired as an administrative assistant with hours restricted by the times the phone must be answered. Perhaps she missed all the positive feedback we had received as a successful project team, particularly in reporting to our funders. 

Whatever her issue, what she was saying was that she didn't trust me to get my work done and that she was in control.

It was tempting to respond to the message with a similar tone. It was tempting to unleash a torrent of frustration via an email message, explaining that I am a professional, that her attempts at control were counter-productive. It was tempting to make a laundry list of her bad management practices, using specific examples of cruel things she said to me. I typed that list into a text document. I unleashed every frustation I had for the year I had worked for her, revealing the defensive, sad and angry feelings I had been experiencing for months. I listed every hurtful incident in that document. Then I printed it and closed it without saving it anywhere so I could take it home with me. I started my email response, closed the draft, and waited until the next day before finishing it and hitting the send button.

Thank goodness for the advice I was given years before.

"Always wait a minimum of 24 hours before sending anything you write while angry or frustrated."

I've added to that advice over the years. When I share the advice with others, I include any messages where the tone can be misinterpreted. I always suggest that when tone is really important, a phone call should be made to explain the email prior to hitting the send button. That advice has saved me many tense conversations, I'm sure. Of course, there continue to be times I hit that send button before really thinking through the message and audience. I've consciously hit that send button with the thought in the back of my head: "I just sabotaged myself." Those incidents are getting fewer each year and each job. Maybe it's the old adage that with age comes wisdom? Or maybe, just maybe, I'm not quite as impulsive as I used to be. Either way, those lessons I listed a couple of years ago - the lessons I learned from that job - continue to work for me, I just have to re-read them every few months.

It had to be embarrassing to the young mother when I brought her four year old son onto the stage between songs. One of our police officers found him wandering around the park, looking for his mom and getting scared. I figured the best way for us to connect the boy with his mom was to bring him up on stage and have him say his mother’s name into the microphone. There were hundreds of people and I knew it would be difficult to get attention. His mom came to the stage to get him, quickly describing her search for him for the past 30 minutes. I know I would have been embarrassed, too, so I announced into the microphone:

“Great! Joshua found his mom! Hasn’t that happened to all of us? You only look away for a minute and your toddler can disappear. That’s when your heart climbs up into your throat as you panic and start your search. It happened to me, too!”

It's tempting to judge, right?

It's tempting to wonder where the mom was that the toddler would get lost. Wasn't she paying attention? What kind of mom does that? It's tempting to think badly of her - but that kind of thing can happen to the best parents. In reality, that mom did a great job. She gave her son the tools to recognize the situation and to seek help. When Joshua started to feel uncomfortable because he couldn’t see his mom, he reached out to one of our most friendly police officers. It’s a small town, which makes things a little easier. All of our officers know each other so if there was a fake uniform at our weekly summer live music event, it would have been caught. Joshua’s mom must have told that little boy many times to find a police officer if he ever got lost, and we all know it takes more than once for that kind of message to sink in. The boy wasn’t too frightened – there were no tears. He knew when he hit his discomfort limit and his good instincts led him to exactly the right person.

In business, judgment takes a different form. Health choices, smoking, tattoos, piercings, pregnancy (non-married employees), family member reputation; all of these can raise questions and judgment in the workplace. Wouldn't it be better to consider a person based on her quality of work, rather than on whether she smokes or whether her sister dropped out of school?

Sometimes personal issues raise concerns in our workplace. I’m a big believer in dressing appropriately for work and in behaving professionally. That’s why, when I notice an appearance issue or a general behavior habit that might be affecting an employee’s professional growth, I will say something; not in judgment, but in concern for his future.

When an employee’s personal life is impacting his professional life, offering constructive feedback about the work is far more effective than criticizing or judging his personal choices.

Is your employee generally professional and hard working? Does he try hard to do his job well and is he usually effective?

Those are the questions to ask yourself when you interact with your employee. Before you interact, make sure that your intentions are good, that you are being constructive in your feedback, and that your feedback is directly related to work. And always, always be kind.

Have you judged too quickly? Do you have triggers that remind you not to judge?

Photo by Margarita Sanchez https://www.flickr.com/people/gebala/

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