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The Customer

Written by: Craig Twombly
Published: September 2010

Every organization has customer service standards and organizations continue to struggle with that elusive customer. As the last ten years progressed the competitive market became tighter and the level of intrusion from other organizations offering the same goods or services into the local market increased. It became clear early on that if two companies offer similar goods or services, the bar in which the customer is served needs to be raised to survive. Basically one needs to take care of the customer’s needs better than the competition.

This example is no better observed than in the corporate restaurant world. When I first entered the corporate restaurant world, the competition was small. As the restaurant chain entered a new market, the largest competitor was usually a local “mom and pop” establishment. Due to the price point’s convenience and style, the restaurant inevitably ended up with the majority of business. As the mid 1990’s came and went, the level of competition began to increase heavily. As a chain entered the point in which markets were becoming saturated, we began to focus our attention to the customer. The success of the restaurant chain sat on the shoulders of leadership, engaging the employees to understand their role and how our success was directly within their hands and the established service standards.

At a meeting in early 1997, I sat in a board room with 30 or so managers.  We were there to be trained on a new restaurant initiative around the customers or at that time what we began to call “our guests”. As the COO explained, a customer could go to one of any number of restaurants and get the exact same steak, burger or entrée. The trick was to wow the guests. Three days later all the managers left with excitement and anticipation to the changes that we were about to implement. After hundreds of thousands of dollars and 18 months of implementation, the corporate office observed. Although there was a large swing towards new customer service standards, there were still complaints from the “guests” who dined in the restaurants. The challenge was around that pivotal question, “Why aren’t the employee’s wowing the guest.”

Most organizations have implemented service standards and strive to reach those standards daily. After many years of trying to meet or exceed guest expectations, there are a couple of points that are important. Although there are standards set if the employee does not understand their role or what they can do, they might not reach the standards you have set. Here are some thoughts on customer service:

  1. Every customer is different. Although most customers want a general standard of treatment, the same approach does not work on everyone. As a managing partner, I would spend more time with employees coaching them on how to handle customers. The restaurant had a standard introduction to a table when they sat down, but I wanted the servers to get to know the customer. I would always challenge them to ask questions, get to know the customer and read the body language of the customer. Reading body language was as simple as looking at a customer squinting at the menu and then asking a probing question The answer  would often have nothing to do with their eye sight as much as a first visit to the restaurant or confusion with the menu. By finding this out, the server could then prepare to give details of the menu or offer their favorite item.
  2. If you’re right you’re wrong. Every business has made a customer mistake or been blamed by the customer as making a mistake. The slogan the “customer is always right” is the slogan on our walls. Even though it is an easy post on the wall, it is sometimes difficult to live by. When an employee came to me with a guest complaint, I always asked, “Why are they upset, what did they tell you, how did you respond and what have you done to remedy the problem.” I believed in empowering the employees to make the correct call. In meetings other managers would ask me how I could trust a server to take care of a customer’s complaint. I am already trusting them with a multimillion dollar business, why would I not. The employees have a direct line to the customer and the customer complaints are usually caused by the service they have received.

If the customer complains that they have received the wrong item, the servers began to understand that the response “That is what you ordered” would not work.  Instead, “I am sorry for the confusion, what can I do to resolve this?” Usually would make the customer feel heard and in control

  1. Make the customer feel they are the most important/only customer you have. “Treat the guest at your table better than you would treat your mom or boyfriend.” The restaurant had standards but I did not want that to be it. If you tell an employee to follow this script, that is what you will get. They will just follow the script, times get busy and the work place will challenge you but the customer is there for the goods and services you provide. Not the fact you are short staffed today.

I recently had to call my cell phone carrier due to an error I thought in my bill. I was pleasantly surprised with the conversation I had. The person on the other line did not offer me the typical, “I am sorry you feel this is wrong”, it was a genuine person who spoke to me and answered my questions, although I heard all the other agents in the background hustling and bustling, he spent time with me and listened to my concerns at the end of the call. I did not receive a discount nor do I feel that I should have, he thoughtfully explained the bill and answered my questions.
The customer service challenge can make a company great and also challenge a company. The customer service standards organizations create are a great building block for success, but will not work without the understanding and involvement of the employees and the roles they play in it. Employees should understand that every customer is different and has different needs. Educating and coaching employees on creating a win-win in every situation will help grow the customer base. Taking the time for an employee to treat every customer as the only customer will help add to the success of the organization.

Craig Twombly

Craig Twombly

Craig is the primary facilitator at Priority Learning, he is responsible for conducting an array of leadership series offered and consulting assignments from communications to team development in organizations ranging from the service industries to finance, manufacturing and more. Having extensive experience at balancing the business needs with the wants and desires of people are Craig's strongest assets.