A couple of weeks ago a friend and I took up a Groupon style offer for a 3 course meal at a restaurant in Sydney. It seemed like great value, but as we walked up to the restaurant, we couldn’t have guessed that we were in for a shocking disappointment.
The food wasn’t great, but it was nice enough. The décor, although cheapened by the plastic flowers on the tables, was still welcoming. The tables and chairs, although a little small, were cosy. The problem was actually one little confrontation we had with the owner, and more specifically how he handled it.
For those who don’t know how online deal websites work: a deal opens for a limited period of time, allowing you to buy something at a really good discount right from the website. You’re then emailed a voucher, which you can then redeem for the product or service you paid for with the particular business itself.
In my case that was a 3 course meal for 2, and when I received my voucher in PDF format, it instructed to either print the voucher or take it in to show it on a mobile phone. Cool. That made things easy! I gave the restaurant a call and made my booking. They reminded me to bring my voucher in, and I said no problem.
We stepped inside the restaurant.
Me: Hi, we have a booking for 2 with a voucher deal.
Waitress: Great, do you have your voucher with you?
I took out my phone and showed it to her.
Waitress: Do you have your voucher with you?
Me: Yeah, this is it. Here’s the voucher.
Waitress: Yeah, we need a printed version.
Me: Oh. It says here that we can bring the voucher in on a mobile device and show you.
Waitress: Yeah, that’s wrong. Someone told you on the phone to print it.
Me: No, they didn’t. They asked me to bring the voucher in, and here it is.
Waitress: Err… there’s a print shop around the corner. You can print it from there?
At this point I was starting to get annoyed. The waitress, without offering so much as a sincere apology for what was clearly a mistake on their part, was asking me to get out of the restaurant, go around the corner and pay to print a voucher I already had, so I could come back and eat at their restaurant.
Eventually, I accepted that she wasn’t going to budge.
Me: Okay look, we’re happy to go and print the voucher, but can we at least order in the meantime?
She took our order, went away, and came back after a minute to let us know that she couldn’t actually serve us until we gave the printed voucher over. Wow!
Me: Is your manager here? Can I speak to the manager, please?
Waitress: Yeah sure.
She went to call the manager (who was also the owner). After waiting a while, a friendly-enough looking gentleman came over to our table and stood there, somewhat blankly waiting for us to say something. I explained the situation, and his response almost dumbfounded me.
Owner: Yes that voucher is wrong. You need to bring a print.
Me: What do you mean the voucher is wrong? Isn’t this the voucher you accept? It says right here we can bring it in and show you on a mobile.
Owner: They made a mistake. Now, I can’t pay for that mistake!
Me: So, you want us to pay for that mistake? You’re willing to let your customers pay for the mistake instead so you don’t have to?
Owner: I need the print voucher so I can give to the company and recover our costs.
He went into a long-winded explanation of how the deal actually worked, and how he needed to give the vouchers over to the deal company to recover his money. It was clearly a trust issue, but also seemed like he had signed up for a marketing tactic without actually realising what the point of it was.
Me: Look, we can appreciate your position, but we just don’t appreciate being told on the spot to go and print the voucher ourselves from a nearby store. And we especially don’t like the fact that we can’t be served any food until we bring that voucher back. It really doesn’t seem like very good customer service.
Owner: Yes, but to serve you and get our money back we still need a paper voucher. We aren’t making any money out of this deal at all. It’s just for advertising and promotion! We have to make sure we don’t lose any money.
At this point, my friend and I chuckled at the man’s innocence, and my friend threw in a comment too.
Friend: Yes, we understand that this is for promotion purposes and to advertise your restaurant, but with the way you’re treating your customers, you’re achieving the exact opposite!
Now this next part was what really shocked me!
Owner: Yes, but you people are only here for the vouchers. I can tell already that you aren’t going to come back anyway.
Whoa! My friend and I were both stunned at what the man had just so obviously implied. It was a wonder at how this business was surviving, considering what he had said, and suddenly the emptiness around us seemed to make more sense.
Me: Do you realise that you’ve basically just told us that you don’t value our business, and we don’t mean anything to you as customers? I find that highly disrespectful.
Owner: No, no! You are wrong! You are wrong!
Instead of offering an apology, he tried to convince me how I had completely misunderstood him. He acknowledged that I was upset, but added that it was my fault for not understanding his intentions. He went on for a while, justifying himself. My friend and I began to laugh at this stage, and resigned to the situation.
As a closing gesture, I took out a business card and handed it to him. He excitedly responded, “Oh great! I’ve been looking for a marketing person! I need help with my marketing!” My friend and I laughed some more, as we went to print the voucher.
So, what was the lesson learnt?
There are actually two simple but not so obvious lessons.
Sometimes second impressions trump the first.
Every time a customer walks into a business, they bring with them certain preconceptions and expectations of the service they’ll receive. These expectations might have been determined by what they’ve heard or experienced of the business in the past, or they might be formulated gradually as they walk in and see the décor, hear the sounds, smell the aromas, and feel the textures. Every single thing about the customer’s experience, from the moment they walk in the door to the second they leave, forms a judgement in their mind about the service.
When something goes wrong in the first few seconds, there is always opportunity to balance it out along the way as long as they’re still experiencing the business in some way. The restaurant owner thought he had blown his chances with us since we had one bad experience. He not only had a chance to make up for the initial slip, but he could have impressed us by handling the confrontation with extra compassion.
I was reminded of the time I ordered some business cards from Saltprint. I was so excited when I got my box of cards; it was like Christmas morning under the tree! When I opened the box to look through them, my heart sank. At least three quarters of the cards were faulty, and I was even more sad than angry at my selection of the print company. I promptly sent them an email explaining what had happened, and tried to be as polite as I could.
Not only did they profoundly apologise, they took the effort to explain how they understood the seriousness of the matter. Almost as soon as they received proof of the fault, they sent me another batch of cards very quickly. I was so impressed with how professionally and compassionately they dealt with the problem, that the problem itself ultimately seemed insignificant compared to the pleasure of the customer service that followed.
No single customer is just a single customer.
The other, perhaps even greater, mistake the restaurant owner made was to treat my friend and I as a completely isolated opportunity for business. By thinking that our impression of his service didn’t matter because we wouldn’t be back anyway, he demonstrated his ignorance to the changing nature of consumer democratisation. The world is not only becoming a smaller and closer place thanks to social media, it’s also making people a lot more ready and vocal with their opinions as consumers.
The restaurant owner neglected the fact that we may have a number of friends looking for a similar restaurant in the area, who we could refer to this place, even if we didn’t come back ourselves. He also ignored the reality of how easy and convenient it is for disgruntled customers to share their negative reviews with the world online these days, through websites such as Eatability (specific for food outlets), as well as social media avenues like Foursquare and Google Maps. You just never know which seemingly ordinary customer is going to send your best customer your way.
I decided not to name and shame the particular restaurant and owner in this article, because I also acknowledged that part of the communication breakdown and the customer service was related to cultural attitudes the restaurant owner hadn’t integrated with his new context. However, this only suggests a third bonus lesson – the responsibility to understand the values and communication styles of your customers lies with you.
So, when a customer walks into your store or office, or stumbles upon your website or an ad campaign, when do you think their experience and impression of you begins and when does it end? And are you really treating each of your customers with the respect and service that you would give your very best?