Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Case Study - Panera Shows How Not to Treat Customers

This actually happened. If you had similar experiences either as a customer or business person, let us hear them and we will try to help with solutions.

Last week, I went to the Panera’s on 2924 Broad St, Bexley, OH and was insulted beyond anything I have ever experienced at any other establishment. So much so that I will never go back there. This is a tale of some of the worst service I have ever encountered. I sent them this posting a week ago through their "please let us know" section on their webpage to see if they would try and make amends but they never responded.

Months ago, I purchased 10 cups of coffee at the Bexley/Whitehall (OH) Broad St. Panera’s for the movers and others helping us into our new home in Bexley, OH. The young woman stamped two coffee cards. One she stamped on the 4 and 8 explaining that anyone would know that the card was full so I could get a free coffee in the future. She also stamped another card twice on the 1 and 2. I placed them in my wallet and forgot about them.

While at Bexley Panera, I remembered the card and handed it to the young woman behind the counter when I ordered a cup of small coffee. It had been a habit of mine to get a small coffee there most every day, sometimes with a bagel; many times with my family for lunch or dinner. She looked at the card and said thyis is not good for a cup of coffee." I informed her what the earlier server had said. This young woman said that “that’s wrong. There are only two stamps on here.” I repeated the story and she said rather skeptically with a tone that implied I was trying to sneak one over on her “this is not good for a coffee. If you want one you’ll have to pay for it.” I again explained the situation and this time she called a colleague – a young man.

He listened to her, looked at the card and said with a depreciatory tone and facial expression “You can’t get a coffee with this. If you want one you’ll have to pay for it. We don’t stamp them like this.” He was clearly insinuating that I was trying to scam a cup of coffee! I then explained the whole situation to him and he said “this is not good for a free coffee. No one would stamp it like this.” His tone was accusatory as if I were trying to steal or swindle a cup of coffee. This young man had “served” me before and if he were a bit more attentive to customers, he could have recalled me as a fairly consistent customer. He did not.

I informed him that it may not have been normal procedure but this is what was done – the 4 and 8 were stamped to show a full card. He then stated “Yuh right. She did this for you. This is card is not good for a cup of coffee”. His tone then became very insolent and accusatory again as if I were I were attempting to steal coffee. “If you want a free coffee that much, I’ll give it to you but this card does not give it you.”

I then asked to speak to the manager. The young man hesitated and I issued a demand to see the manager. The manager was called. Gregg Wilson is a nice man but he seemed a bit lost in what to do. He did listen to me, asked the employees if that is what happened, then sent the two servers to the back to wait for him and he said he was sorry. He asked what he could get me to make it up to me and me feel better. But in the case of accusatory behavior, challenging my integrity and making me feel like a thief over a cup of coffee by his employees, his offer rang hollow. Besides it was not a situation of what can I get you now. This is not the time and only made me feel like he thought I was after something free. He may have meant it as a gesture but making me do the request for something put the burden on me.

It seems to me that Panera needs to look into customer service approaches and if any training is done, do a much better job. They not only lost one customer but many more because an angry cuistomer will tell at least 6-9 others who in turn and so on.

The proper response here was actually quite simple.

The front line employees.

1. Never challenge the customer! He may be wrong and customers can be wrong but do not start by putting him on the defensive, particularly when dealing with a simple cup of coffee.

2 Train the employees to explain the situation, "This card was not filled out the correct way I am afraid. Each cup should have been stamped." Education is often the key to good future service.

3. Review the situation with the customer. "You say she stamped the last cups in the rows to show it had been filled?" The customer will answer yes.

4. Here is the secret answer. "Okay, well it was her error. Next time make sure she stamps each cup? Okay? How would you like your coffee?"

The manager

1. The employees are a red flag in front of the customer. Move them employees out of the area immediately. Do it quietly so as not to antagonize them. Get their story later.

2. Move the customer away from the front counter. The customer may also feel he is on display and become even more upset. Moreover, every other customer can observe and hear the issue. It will not please the customers. They will feel badly for one or the other and their experience will be tainted. Suggest going to a booth and talking.

2. Get the customer the cup of coffee! That is what he came in for so at least complete that task.Maybe even grab a muffin or something to add to it as a peace offering. It will be taken as a gesture of good will. Even if the customer is wrong finally it is always easier to work with a happier customer.

3. Hear the customer out and take notes. That shows you are listening and take him seriously.

3. Do not ask the customer what he wants to make him happy. That is a question that can inflame the situation. The customer is made to feel as if he has to solve the problem and what do you do if he asks for something you cannot give him?
So, you suggest a solution. In this case, "I know you are upset now but give me a chance to show you how it should be done. I would like to give you a certificate for a dinner on me for you and the family and free coffee for a month?"
Balance the cost of the free coffee and a dinner for a customer who will perhaps become an advocate from finally being treated well and with respect. This could result in him telling others of a good resolution. Leaving a customer feeling accused and angry will turn him into a Panera subversive who will make sure you lose at least 6-9 customers. And not just in Bexley but in other Paneras as well. Simple choice it would seem.

The company

1. Answer your requested emails. If you offer someone a chance to write a comment, respond, particularly if it is an angry customer problem.

2. Solve the issue. See above.

If these steps had been followed, the customer would believe he had at least been heard. This is an important step. He may not have gone back to Panera's for a while, maybe never, but he would not be happily retelling the story to disuade others. That would have been a big plus.

Oh yes, my family and others who have now heard the story will never go back. We are recommending Cosi. I am certain that if there is an opportunity to let people know how Panera treats customers, I will take it. In fact, I guess I did by begin by placing this on my blog

Perhaps this experience with commentary on how it should have been handled will help some of you...but I am not sure it will help Panera. They need help.

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