The Challenge of Customer Service

Friday night I took my wife out for Valentine’s Dinner. We had a reservation for 9 pm and I hoped that later in the evening we could enjoy a slow, quiet dinner. It was for a very nice restaurant, one where you’ll drop $150 or so on dinner for two. Things went wrong from the start. Really bad table where they tried to fit in more temporary tables than made sense. Moved to a different table. Appetizers fine. Steak wrong,  seafood was the wrong seafood, one of the sides was lukewarm. Second try at the steak it wasn’t cooked right and the lukewarm side never came back to the table. They eventually comped the meal, but really I’d have much preferred my original plan – pay well for a good to great meal with good to great service.

Food service isn’t an easy business, lots of little ways things can go wrong and fixing some of them takes time (redoing the food) and some are harder to fix – server not paying attention for example – because the damage is done. On the way out they asked me what they could do to fix things and my answer was nothing – they made a mess of it and while the evening wasn’t quite ruined, it wasn’t good. Now thing about being on their side, what do you do? Comping a meal or bringing a free dessert is a start, but by then it’s too late – you’ve damaged the brand. Common sense says you try to get it right the first time, but it’s unrealistic to think that will always happen. The best at the business know that how they handle the mistakes the first time is the difference between winning and losing. Had they gotten the food right on the second try, worked a little harder at setting the tone, it could easily have still worked out well. Mistakes, regardless of who or how, are not the customers problem. Blame someone later, get frustrated later. When things go wrong, you can excel or just fall back on the system that failed the first time. Most times the latter will work, but if you really care about your brand (and by extension, your customers), every single mistake needs attention from a manager.

As a consumer, it’s a puzzle. I could trash them here and/or on social media or Open Table or Yelp, or all of the above. Who am I blaming? The brand? The manager? The server? To what point though? Most times they get it right, this time they didn’t (or the last time we were there, but that’s another story).  The only thing they can offer me is free food, but why would I go back when they didn’t work hard enough at taking care of me last time? I thought about it over the weekend and yesterday sent an email to the only email address I could find on their contact page, asking it to be forwarded to the right person. I explained the problems and explained I wasn’t seeking anything beyond an apology. I was mildly surprised to see a reply this morning from the local general manager with the requested and seemingly sincere apology, and an offer to come back as his guest. That’s all they have, no magic.

Note: If you’re running a business, don’t make it hard for someone to contact you if they have a problem.

I wish they had tried harder – they had my contact information, why didn’t they call or email me first? Send my wife flowers? Bring dinner to my  house. Do something beyond trying to fix their brand. I don’t know, but I suspect it’s a combination of lack of imagination, cynicism about people that just want free meals, and maybe having learned that they can’t always get it right or please everyone, so they go this far and no further.

I’m not inclined to coach them to success. I replied back that I’d file the invitation and maybe later in the year reconsider it. Right now that’s not looking good. I guess I’m curious to see if they drop it, or will they loop back at some point?

Asking a lot you think? Or not enough? If you’re going to run a business you have to figure out how much you care and how much you can afford (price point does affect options, as does severity of the problem). What percentage of customers are you willing to disappoint? How hard are you willing to work to keep the negative social media to a minimum? Nothing simple about it because there has to be limits, but something as simple as a card in the mail might do more good than all the email apologies in the world.