Technology and Customer Service

I am continuing my discussion of “customer service’ this week. As I mentioned in the last blog, I had a satisfactory experience at a fast food restaurant when compared to an unpleasant experience I had at a sit-down Mexican restaurant.

I stopped at that same fast-food place for lunch a couple of weeks ago and I was excited that the dining room was open! I am growing tired of eating my lunch on my tailgate! I went inside, but there were no people… I mean BEHIND the counter! I finally got someone’s attention, but they just pointed to the kiosks behind me.

I thought, “Oh great, I have to order with this thing!” You see, at my age, I still want to place my order with a person. The younger generation may not mind doing everything through the latest technology, but I, and I think most of us “older” customers prefer dealing with actual people…in person and on the phone!

I looked behind the counter and saw two employees. One was at the drive-thru, while the second was assembling food. As I was eating, I realized what was happening to our customer service. We take away all personal interaction: we get assigned a number and when our number is called, our food is placed under a little opening in the counter, and we go sit down and take out our phones and check our social media. Awesome, absolutely no human contact!

I understand that businesses must do what they need to do to get by, especially when, lately, it is so challenging to find enough good help. I know several restaurant owners and managers who tell me that their drive-thru only service has been more profitable than when they were fully open. My suggestion to them: “Be careful!” For many, the experience of dining out includes the atmosphere and the experience of getting the family out of the house and sitting down. For some, my family included, it may be the only time we sit and eat together. Not everyone wants to send someone out to a drive-thru to bring back bags of food, hopefully, the right food!

When I train my Kona staff, one of the first things that I ask them is “What do we sell”? Every one of them quickly says, “Shaved ice,” or some form of that product. Each one of them is completely wrong!

I mean, yes, we have shaved ice on the trucks. But what we actually sell are lifetime memories and amazing experiences. For most businesses, the ‘relationship’ ends when the transaction is completed.  For my business, the transaction is just the beginning of a long term ‘relationship’.

When I see people out in our community, they all tell me about when they saw us, the first time they saw us, their favorite flavor or that their kids keep talking about us and can see our trucks a mile away through the woods!  We have been a part of family gatherings, celebrations and traditions.

When I was a kid, we had the Good Humor guy, or more popularly known as the “Goodie Bar Man.” He had that classic, vintage, ice cream truck, and rang these little bells. You could hear him for miles… and would run to your house to find whatever scraps of change you could find before he arrived. My private stash was inside my dad’s recliner. He would come home from work, with change in his pocket and it would fall out inside the recliner as he fell asleep. My hands were small enough to reach inside the back of it… and it was my early form of an ATM machine! 

The entire neighborhood of kids would stand at the usual spot, the “Goodie Bar Man” would pull up and we would anticipate getting our push up or strawberry shortcake, or some other favorite treat. I can still remember his face, his all-white uniform, the clicking sound of the freezer doors, and the blast of cold air as he opened them. I remember how excited we all were to have ice cream dripping down our hands! It wasn’t about the thing that we bought; it was about the experience. Those experiences from back then make up our fond memories today.

I worry about businesses focusing just on ‘filling the bag.’ It might not even be the right stuff inside, but the car came through and food went into the bag. They might not be sure that the right sauce was put inside, or even if any was put inside. They may not have even checked to see if it was the correct order. Sometimes the attitude can be “Just take the bag and move on.” Eye contact has become a lost art, and so has a sincere gesture of asking if there is anything else that they can do for the customer. In many cases it has been replaced with a canned, robotic response that was part of the training.

When you think of your own business, ask yourselves about your customers’ expectations. Are they coming to you because you have a quaint little shop, and you are always there to interact and socialize? Or is it because you are the only one who carries a certain product or that you wrap up the purchases in a nice package.

As the owner or manager, you probably ensure that the little things are taken care of. But when you leave it up to an employee, you can leave a lot out there for their interpretation. What brings customers back to your business? Can you make that repeatable? Can you train that skill? And a common omission, how much time do you spend on training? 

By anticipating what the customers like about your business, or what draws them to your business, you can more effectively ensure they have an enjoyable experience, and that they’ll want to repeat that experience again and again. If you don’t take the time to find out what is actually important to them, how will you know whether or not you are continuing to provide it? If you leave out the things that are important to them, (whether you realize it or not,) you are simply handing them a bag full of stuff hoping that they will get home and be satisfied with what you put in it. And like the Mexican restaurant manager, you could have a false sense of your customers’ levels of satisfaction and their willingness to remain “loyal” customers. Loyalty works both ways.

When you recognize that the experience you provide is often more important than the actual product or service, it’s easy to see how true “customer service” can be overlooked when we have so many other challenges to face in the course of running our businesses.

When we remember that our customers are “persons,” it’s easier to remember, and to train our staff, that what we should be offering as “customer service” is in fact, “personal service.” With that one change of perspective, it’s also easier to remember that each interaction with our customers is actually an opportunity to provide a unique experience, since each of them (and each of their needs, wants, and expectations) is also unique.

In the next blog, I will be illustrating how the Chamber is taking this perspective very much to heart, and attempting to offer unique experiences to our members and our potential members in our community.