No Excuse for Bad Customer Service

So I’m in line to get a biscuit this morning (I try to resist but some mornings you just gotta have a biscuit) and when I turn the corner after ordering I can overhear the conversation with the car in front of me.  It wasn’t pretty.  The car in front of me contained two smiling older ladies who were deep in a conversation with the drive thru attendant.  She wasn’t smiling.  I could really only hear one side of the conversation but I could easily fill in the rest based on context.  As the smiling ladies got to the window the attendant had read them back the order that was pulled and waiting for them.  It wasn’t right. Now I don’t know how the smiling ladies informed the attendant of that, but it couldn’t have been to harsh, they were smiling after all. Now here is the part I did hear painfully clearly.

“I read you back your order and you said it was OK,” the attendant informed them with more than a touch of sass.  Ouch.  

I immediately thought, wow, this is NOT how you handle a mistake.  And that’s all this was really, just a mistake.  Someone either misspoke or someone misheard or someone misentered. I’m sure there wasn’t any intention to deceive.  I just couldn’t conceive of the smiling ladies plotting on their way to the restaurant about how they were going to mess up this order on purpose just to cause the attendant trouble.  I supposed it’s possible, but I didn’t think so.  They were smiling after all.

There was another exchange from the smiling ladies that I couldn’t hear followed by the attendant saying “Well then what DO you want?”  Ouch again.

Still smiling the ladies declined to reorder and gently pulled out to see if there was another restaurant that could take their order and treat them with decency at the same time. I suspect that they found one.  I also expect that it will be a long time before they return to this restaurant.  

I was really surprised by this whole exchange.  This same restaurant had previously been the recipient of my praise.  I had witnessed an amazing act of customer care where an order also had gone wrong.  It happens. In this case the gentleman who ordered noticed the problem after he pulled away from the window.  He stopped his car and pulled into a parking space but before he could get out of the car an attendant rushed over to find out what the problem was and take care of it.  Wow. I was amazed. What I witnessed today was the exact opposite of that day and I had to wonder why?

I knew what went wrong and it had nothing to do with an order mistake.  Mistakes are going to happen, that’s a given, but what happens afterwards that’s what really matters.  I work hard not to make mistakes.  Most people I know do as well.  No matter how hard I work or what precautions I take, mistakes still happen.  It’s not personal.  I think that’s were people go wrong the most, they make the mistake be about them rather than the issue.  They hear “you made a mistake” or worse yet “you are a mistake” rather than “a mistake has been made.” 


Taking it personal usually leads to getting upset.  It’s easy to get angry with a person but much harder to get angry with a thing.  Yes, I’ll admit I have yelled at inanimate objects before but I never got any where with them.  They just stay there peacefully taking my abuse until I wore myself out and felt foolish.  When you lose control of your emotions, especially your temper you are in trouble. That’s exactly what I saw, the attendant was angry.  Surprising, the smiling ladies didn’t seem to be upset.  They just wanted their order. Arguing about who is at fault really isn’t profitable.  If you win what do you actually get? Satisfaction? Try cashing that at the bank. The goal is to serve the customer and keep them happy so that they will buy stuff from you, come back and buy more stuff from you and convince their friends that they to should buy stuff from you. Whether you are an owner or employee it doesn’t really matter.  Your compensation, paycheck or dividend, only happens if customers keep paying for your stuff.  It doesn’t matter who’s fault it is, apologize anyways.  Say it with me, “I’m sorry.”  See, not so hard. A quick and sincere apology ends the problem.  


When I’m courting a new customer, I never promise them that we won’t make a mistake.  In fact I assure them that we will.  What is different, I tell them, is that we will own our mistakes and make them right.  It is far less expensive to fix your mistakes then it is to live with them. The attendant’s “Well then what DO you want?”  just doesn’t cut it.  All she needed to do was say “I’m so sorry for the confusion, we’ll get this straightened out right away.  Do you mind telling me one more time what you want and I’ll make sure we get it right out to you?”  Now, if the smiling ladies couldn’t be happy with that, well that’s their problem. You can’t avoid mistakes, but you can make them right.


Yet in what I witnessed this morning all three of these basic step to resolving a customer complaint were ignored.  What happened between the fanatical curb side proactive service I’d previously witnessed and this fiasco?  Time had passed, staff had changed and somewhere along the line something had gone horribly wrong.

There are several things that might be responsible, I’ll probably never know for sure.

  1. Lack of documented procedures – Every business needs a set of written standards, otherwise we make up stuff as we go and we end up contradicting ourselves.  I confess, I’ve done it.  Ask me something on two different days and you are liable to get two completely different answers.  How do you expect anybody to follow that kind of logic?  Write it down or you can’t hold them accountable.
  2. Poor training – Customer satisfaction training has to be constantly reinforced.  Too often we just assume people know what to do. They don’t – unless we tell them. 
  3. Bad employee – Despite our best efforts sometimes we get a bad apple.  In my experience it’s best to hire slow and fire fast.  Rot tends to spread quickly.

To illustrate this point, I had a supervisor approach me about a problem with one of his direct reports. They had made a poor decision and the supervisor was beginning to question whether they could do the job.

Here’s what I asked.

“Did we have a written SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for this task?”

The answer was “No, but they should know better. It’s just common sense that you don’t do it that way.” Except it isn’t.  We assume everyone is just like us.  They aren’t.  They’ve had a different life, a different upbringing.  They have different skills and abilities.  We are all very different in fact.  Assuming that someone should just see your point of view is going to lead to a lot of frustration. 

“Have we taken time to make sure that we have trained him on how to do the task?”

Again, the answer was no.

“Sounds like our problem is that we don’t have a documented procedure and we never trained him on how to do that task.  Is that his responsibility our ours?”

It’s only the employees fault if we are sure that we’ve communicated in writing and we’ve adequately trained them. If they still do it wrong, then it’s on them.  Only after we are sure it’s not our problem do we need to look at the employee and what if any action needs to be taken.   One of our core values is to “Be Motive Minded.” I don’t know why the attendant was rude to the smiling ladies, but I really want to. 

Bad day?

Was there venom behind those smiles?

Was this the first time this kind of thing had happened or was there a pattern?

I’d need a lot more information before I could judge. And isn’t that the point really?  We define people and companies based on singular episodes. No one is always right, always rude or always anything.  As a business owner, however I have to understand that people are unforgiving.  I also need to take good care of my employees if I ever expect them to take care of our customers.  This restaurants owner will pay a steep price for the attendant’s actions.  As an employee I need to remember what my job is, take care of my customers so they take care of me.  It’s not personal it’s business.  Finally, as a customer, I should always treat people with respect and give them the opportunity to make it right before I lose my cool.  

We can do better than this.