Thursday, August 9, 2012
Over the years I have had some pretty crazy war stories. I have had an all out fist fight with a customer in the dining room, battles with purveyors, and screaming matches with customers. I have thrown multiple parties out of the restaurant and, for the most part, my cavalier attitude has led me to believe that these attacks have always been justified. I have had far more positive stories though --we have celebrated lots of engagements, tons of happy rehearsal dinners and countless birthday celebrations and many weddings -- where we always try to do something special. We’ve done lots of great community service including charity donations, food drives, coat drives, fundraisers and, of course, our big Christmas drive where we adopt multiple families with children and give them the whole Xmas experience. But, all of the good is quickly cast aside when you have an altercation with a customer.
Recently, when I was sitting around one night telling war stories with my staff, I noticed that every story was funnier than the next…except every story was about a negative experience at the restaurant. Not one story was a “remember when we helped” or “how about the time the couple got engaged…”
Here’s one that particularly stands out in my mind. When I first started my cheese program, I was the only person who handled it and I personally delivered it to each table. One particular evening a customer had ordered a cheese board just as I had received an urgent call about my mother-in-law (an elderly dementia patient). The phone call was regarding a critical matter that needed to be handled immediately. My time on the phone caused the customers to wait a little over 20 minutes for their cheese board. As soon as I was off the phone, the server quickly brought me up-to-date on the situation and I immediately made their cheeseboard, added two additional cheeses from my private collection and headed to the table. I simply said, Folks I would like to apologize for your wait” and I began to explain what had happened and how the cheese board was on the house. With only a few words from my mouth, the gentleman looked at me and said "let me ask you what you think is an appropriate amount of time to wait?" I felt as though I was already addressing (apologizing) for the inappropriate wait time and I continued on with my story. The gentleman put his hand up in disgust and stopped me mid- sentence only to wave me off and dismiss what I was saying as a lie. I was practically holding back tears at the very sad news I had just learned about a family member and to my dismay I did lose my temper. I never yelled or argued I simply removed the cheese board and asked them to leave. My biggest regret was dropping the F-Bomb which in hindsight was inappropriate. But I am only human and we do make mistakes.
I did learn from the experience and have since trained others on the staff to do the cheeses, but the impact of my actions goes far deeper than losing those two customers. They have told countless people their version of the story and have posted the experience on numerous websites. My lashing out, although prompted by their arrogance, was due more to personal issues rather customer issues. If I had just kept my cool, walked away and let them have their dinner, I probably would have won them over in the end. At the very least they would have calmed down, appreciated the free cheeseboard and, most likely, not gone out of their way to destroy my reputation.
I had an eye-opening customer service experience recently during a dinner at Bonefish Grill. The fish we had smelled bad and didn’t taste good. We told the server and immediately the manager was at the table. He never tried to educate or argue, he only wanted to make us (his customers) happy. He asked, “Can we get you something else?” When we said “no,” he removed the entree from the bill, sent a dessert and then gave us a coupon for a free appetizer. Now I know the chains can afford to never let a customer leave unhappy at any cost and the fish was definitely bad, but it still made me think about my customer service.
I don’t know if it’s me getting older or just settling in as a more mature business owner, but my views on customer service have changed. I still do not adhere to the policy the customer is always right. Sorry folks, but unfortunately customers taking advantage of that line has deemed it bullshit. And looking back at my battles, I believe all were justified. I do, however, think most of them were handled poorly. I now know that the lashing out was more about my financial struggles or personal issues rather than the customer issues.
I train my staff to understand we are in an industry where we need to eat a bunch of shit. There is, however, a line -- and if customers cross it we will let them know. Every day I continue learning how to address customer issue without letting the customer leave upset and still sticking to my principles (sometimes that is easier said than done). I know from the outside looking in, this concept seems pretty easy. But when you own an independent restaurant you need to have your heart and soul attached. This personalized touch is what makes your place unique. This personalized touch is also what makes criticism so much harder to swallow. Mix that with the daily stress of owning a small business and the combination can be toxic. It won’t matter how many great things you do… the one bad thing will always triumph. For those in the past that I offended, I still am sticking with my principles, but I do apologize for my ignorance.10 years open and I still learn everyday!