A Teachable Moment In Customer Service Lost

Yesterday evening, my wife came home to find me in considerable distress as I had left work an hour early with a pounding headache. So it was one of those nights when I didn’t want to be in the kitchen making dinner, and what she suggested didn’t appeal. In the end, she popped out and came home with submarine sandwiches and announced during our meal, “I’ve got material for your blog tomorrow”.

Now the things I shared up to this point have generally come entirely from my own experience, so I wasn’t sure if I’d write about something else or not, but it’s a really good example of both poor product delivery and the response from the source of the problem.

Apparently what happened was that while in a line backed up to the door, a few people entered the fast-food shop within moments of each other and proceeded right to the cashier. Somehow, the sandwiches they had ordered were inadvertently given out to other customers, and they were returning them with the expectation of getting their orders re-made.

In describing the scene, my wife noted that the staff were composed of teenagers, it was a busy production line, and the woman who was on cash was the one in charge. So the situation just to reiterate is that it’s busy, the staff is young and making minimum wage, the senior person in charge is taking the money and the last one to deliver the product into the hands of the customer. While the sandwiches are done in a production line, some are taken out of the line to be toasted, and then re-entered for final toppings.

At this point, when customers present with a problem, it is the response of the person they address that can save the situation and retain the customer, or add fuel to the fire if the customer leaves dissatisfied. What the cashier did was listen to the complaint, make a sour face, and then turn to the students making the product and say, “What do you think you’re doing?”.

Now what could have happened, is that right or wrong, responsible or not, the Cashier as a representative of the store itself, could have listened to the consumer, apologized, offered to have the sandwich re-made, explained the problem and asked for patience from others in line as the few subs were made a priority. Later, when it was quiet and business had slowed or the store was empty, the problem could have been addressed beyond the sight lines of the public.

But this isn’t what transpired. Maybe the staff were all new hires. Maybe the staff have been there since the beginning of the summer and have a few months under their belt. Maybe too the Cashier has a spouse in the hospital with a serious medical problem or banged up their car earlier in the day. Maybe, maybe, maybe. But to the customers in line, all they care about is getting the product they ordered, and if there’s an issue, have it resolved quickly and pleasantly. Here there was no acknowledgement of regret expressed with an apology, no offer of a refund, a credit for a future purchase or even the slightest word of an apology. The customers returning their orders were quite literally an inconvenience.

I think the only thing this Cashier could have done worse was to take the three returned subs, inspect them for size and contents and given them to the right purchasers! Now that would have been gross. Who knows whose touched them, smelled them, or taken a bite from.

Mistakes happen. While perfection is something to strive for, mistakes occur; and it’s therefore critical to plan for those moments and make sure that employees know how to respond when they do, and what steps the company approves of to rectify the situation. Companies that rely on staff to use common sense and do whatever feels right in a given situation are going to be in trouble. For example in this scenario, one person might re-make the sub and send the customer on their way, while another might re-make the sub and send them on their way and include a coupon for a free sub some other time. While both resolve the immediate problem, because of the inconsistent responses, you may make one customer feel like you haven’t done everything you could have, and now they might feel short-changed.

Saying, “My apologies, how can we make this up to you?” often is all it takes to calm a person down and keep a situation from escalating. After all, you already have one problem, why exasperate the customer and increase the level of annoyance? Most people who have an issue with a product or service are content to present their issue and see how the store or company respond initially. It is the reaction at the first point of contact from the other side of the desk, or counter in this situation, that usually determines how next the customer will react.



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