What is Customer Service?

In the next few blogs, I’m going to be addressing “Customer Service:” What it is, why we should care about it, and what it really means for our businesses, and organizations.

Several years ago, I presented to a group of young future entrepreneurs. The topic was the same question that I also ask at every interview of potential employees. That is: “What is Customer Service?” The typical response was, and continues to be, “Doing what the customer wants,” or “Going above and beyond for the customer” and my favorite, “Doing what the customer asks”. Each are partly true, but not completely. The thing about customer service is that you really don’t know what the customers’ expectations are. And each customer is likely to have different criteria and expectations. Customers are people, or other businesses – run by people, so it follows that their needs, wants, and expectations are unique.

I will give this example: A few years ago, I was out with my family for dinner at a new Mexican restaurant in town that we had been very eager to try. It was very different from most of the Mexican restaurants I had patronized before. This place was eclectic and somewhat up-scale, and it was packed! The music was different (better) than we expected, and everyone was having a good time. We were seated quickly, the drinks were brought to the table promptly and the waiter was eager to take our order. I ordered some ‘fancy’ tacos, and I saw that coconut rice was an optional side item. I added it to my order, and was so glad I did. It was delicious! The manager stopped by our table and asked if everything was satisfactory. The kitchen manager came over as well, to check on our enjoyment of the dishes we ordered. The food was good…very good…(especially that coconut rice,) but more than that, it was a pleasant dining experience overall. It remains one of our nicest ‘dining memories.’

Several months went by, and again I was looking for some place to have dinner. I remembered that coconut rice, and chose to go to that Mexican restaurant to order some. My mouth watered at the thought! When we went inside, the atmosphere was still as I remembered and the same kind of music was playing, but there were not as many people inside. After about a 10-minute wait, someone finally shuffled over to the door and asked if anyone had been over to seat us – an odd question, since we were obviously still standing around, waiting. As we were seated, we were given the name of our server and handed a menu. It may have been another 5 minutes or so when someone came over and asked if anyone had gotten our drink order. We answered that no, no one had. Eventually our waiter turned up to take our food order. I put my initial irritation aside because I was, once again, filled with anticipation at the thought of getting my hands on some of that wonderful coconut rice.

I ordered excitedly, “I will have the street tacos and the coconut rice… yes… bring it on!”

The waiter hesitated, and said “Well, I’ll have to check on the rice.” He came back a few minutes later and said that they only offer the coconut rice with a particular dish – a dish I didn’t want to order, just so I could get the rice.

My disappointment was obvious as I said, “I was here not that long ago, and I was able to get it as a side, I will even pay extra to add it to my order!”

“No, sir, I am sorry,” he said. “I was specifically told that we had a limited amount and they wanted to make sure that there was enough should someone come in and order the dish we are serving it with.”

It was about 7 pm, and the restaurant was practically empty. I really didn’t expect a mad rush on the place, with everyone ordering the dish that came with the coconut rice. It was maddening to me to think that they would hold onto the rice, just in case someone came in who might want to order it, when they had an actual customer who was even willing to pay extra for it! Typical me, once frustrated, I really just wanted to leave, but my son was looking forward to his dish, so I said, “I will just have the chips and salsa and my drink, I will pass on the dinner.”

The waiter left the table and, a few minutes later, the kitchen manager came to the table.

“Sir, is there something that I can make for you?”

I said, “Well, I came in today because I had the coconut rice a few weeks ago and it was amazing! I came in here specifically to get it and was told that I couldn’t get it even if I paid extra.”

He said, “It’s true, we don’t make it in large batches, so I may not have enough should other customers come in and order the dish that it is served with.”

I said, “Well thank you.. I am just going to finish up my chips and drink. My son will get his meal and we will be on our way.”

It wasn’t more than 5 minutes after that interaction, that the manager came over. She said the same thing… at that point I was really aggravated! No one was interested in meeting my expectations, they just wanted me to be satisfied at their explanations of WHY they weren’t prepared to do so, and they just hoped they could offer me something else, so I wouldn’t be upset anymore.

She walked away, but came back with a brown paper bag, that she placed on the table, only saying that there was no charge for the meal that my son ate. Nothing was said about the bag, and I assumed it contained some extra of the complimentary tortilla chips they offer at the table. When we left, I tossed the bag in the back seat of my car and promptly drove over to a local fast food taco restaurant.

I pulled up to the drive-thru ordering menu, ordered my food, and drove up to the first window. The cashier hardly made eye contact, but my change was correct. I drove up to the next window, where I could barely understand what she was saying, but as I looked in my bag, my food order appeared to be correct. I was happy, content and satisfied. I got exactly what I ordered and I got the right change! Oh, and I got the right sauce packets!

I got home and, as expected, my food was exactly what I thought it would be. My son walked over with the brown bag from the restaurant and put it on the table. Guess what was in the bag? No…. not chips… it was a container of coconut rice! Well now I was angry! I said a few choice words, and I thought to myself, “Why couldn’t they have given me this rice when I ordered?”

It would have made all the difference. Not just because I would have gotten the food I wanted, but because I would have gotten the experience I was expecting – the pleasant experience I was eagerly anticipating when I walked into that restaurant.

At the first restaurant, I had high expectations from a previous experience. I was anticipating a similarly enjoyable experience. The hostess had no idea of my expectations when I waited forever to sit down. Neither the waiter, nor the 2 managers had any idea, at first, that I really wanted that coconut rice, and that it was my only reason for going to that restaurant; so when I was told that I couldn’t have it, by three different staff members in succession, my experience was quickly going downhill with each interaction. The problem is, that I bet if someone could have asked that manager about the experience, she would likely have have said, “I did what the customer wanted. I comped the meal and I threw in some of that rice that he wanted. I checked all the boxes – one satisfied customer. He will likely come back.”… She would be wrong!

At the fast-food restaurant, I was completely satisfied. Sure, the customer interactions could have been better. The food wasn’t awesome, but I wasn’t expecting it to be. I knew what I was getting. I got the right change, and the right order!

As the customer, my satisfaction was directly related to my expectations. Sometimes as business owners, we forget that key point.

This past week I stopped in at that same fast-food place for lunch, and had a very different experience. It brought something home to me about the current state of “customer service,” in the midst of all of the changes going on around us and in our businesses as we work our way through new challenges.

In my next blog, I’ll share that experience with you, and offer some insights to ensuring we all keep customer service at the heart of our businesses. In the following blog, I’ll take it a step further to illustrate how we, as a Chamber are focusing on customer service as well.

Whether we have a business or a private, non-profit, or government-run organization, we all provide customer service in some form. In previous blogs, I’ve discussed how we can all become complacent in one way or another, and often-times, since customer service can so easily be misunderstood, it can also be one of the easiest components about which to become complacent. My hope is that bringing attention to the ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ of customer service, we can all do a better job of providing it!