Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Must all Customer Service Be Good?

Customer service. Just what in the world is it really? Maybe it’s like art? We may not know why a picture is great or not but we can feel it when it is or isn’t? Or better, like love. We all know when we have found it or lost it but cannot explain why or how we know.

Most experts will tell you that it is focusing so fully on meeting the satisfaction level of the customer, that he or she will love you. Others will say that it is loving your customer – hug them, overwhelm them with service, and they will love you back. Yet, others will say that it is a series of activities that make the customer more than happy from dealing with you. And some even propose that customer service is providing the customer service beyond service. Almost as if the customer were royalty in the days of kings.

After all, THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT. Right? And rule number one is the customer comes first, second and third. And rule number two is “read rule number one.” Besides, we are all here to make the customer happy with his or her experience. Right?

I tried to keep all of this in mind when I went to a very popular restaurant in Boston. It has been around since 1827. And we had to wait in a long line as waitresses rushed and pushed around the customers with both hands and mouths. “Hey, move over, I’m working here,” one said as she cut in front of me. “Get the hell out of my way” another growled as she carried a tray of food through the waiting customers in line. Then we were finally seated at a long table, sort of like a family gathering around the long dining room table but we were stuck in between two couples we did not know. And we did not get to know them or the ones across the table from us that night.

A waitress finally came over to take our order. It took a while. “Okay, what’ll it be?” I am a notoriously slow decider in restaurants because I really want to try it all. I told the waitress I would be a minute. “Okay, but not much more. We’re real busy tonight.” And she turned away to accost another customer.

After we ate and left, we walked around Faneuil Hall and talked about the meal. It was very good, especially the Indian pudding for desert. The pot roast I got was very tender and there was enough even for me, a person of dependably large appetite. But the waitresses? Wow! I had never been treated like that before, even at some of the dive places I enjoy frequenting when on the road. No server had ever cursed me before in a restaurant. At least not to my face. Would we go back sometime? Of course. Great food at a decent price and with service that was horrid.

While walking off the meal, I overheard another couple talking about their experience at Durgin Park. They were a bit upset it seemed. “Wonder what is happening to there? What’d think we were? Tourists? Some hicks from the Midwest? That waitress we had.. The food came fast and it was good but the waitress… She was polite and helpful. Maybe the place is just changing but not for the better. We’ll give it another shot because I like their prime rib and maybe we can get some real bitchy waitress next time. Did you see the size of that prime rib. My dog will love the leftovers?“

What? They were bothered because the waitress was polite, helpful, gave them good service? Haven’t they read the rules? We, the customers come first. Waitresses should provide not just good, but great service. They should fawn all over us. Get beyond the “Hi, my name is Tiffany and I will be serving you tonight” to real serving to our every whim and desire (well, maybe onto every one of them but restaurant-related). And these folks were complaining because their waitress did all this? Are they communists or something?

I had a chance to hear another small group as they another restaurant in the area.. All but one of them seemed to enjoy his evening. They were generally pleased with being maltreated. “That was good. What service. That waitress really hopped and made sure everything was there when it should be. And when I looked at my steak and saw it was not done enough , she just whipped it away. Could tell by my face. Like she read my mind and took it back to get cooked more. And when you said the fish was cooked too much and dry, the frown on her face told it all. She must’ve told the chef off for you too since she brought his apologies and a new piece of fish.”

“She was great. One of the best waitresses I ever had but I don’t know. She was great but all in all, but the place was not quite what I expected. I thought the steak would’ve been better. I mean it was good but a little tough. For what it cost, it should have been like butter.”

“Yuh, well, okay so we’ll skip it next time we’re in town and try somewhere else.”

CUT! Hold everything. One guy is complaining he wasn’t served rudely enough in one place but he would go back to be treated worse next time. And another guy gets great service, absolutely great and he isn’t going back to that restaurant? This makes no sense.

I can’t find anything about this in any of the books or articles I’ve read. According to them, the first person would be running as fast as he can from Durgin Park and swearing that he’ll never go back to be treated so poorly. The second guy should be raving about the service. He should be extolling the place as a paragon, an exemplar of service. He should be looking forward to telling at least six people to go to the restaurant because of the great service. But instead, he doesn’t want to go back.

What’s the deal? This does not jive with what we have been told all these years about customer service.

The deal simply is that what most people say about customer service has been overly simple and frankly, very often dead wrong. And we all know it. Good service as in the process of a waitress or waiter being polite, attentive, helpful, friendly and efficient is not what we are really after in a restaurant after all. The ceremonial rite of service in the restaurant is just that, a ritual that literally sets the table for the real event, the real service, the food.

In fact, it’s the food that is the real core of the service itself. Not just the social ceremony of prompt greeting, a little chat during the presenting of the menu, asking for drink orders, leaving to get the drinks and bring them back, announcing the specials, taking the orders, bringing the food to the table, asking for desert orders, bringing the bill, processing the credit card and saying thank you, then for you to leave to collect the tip. This is a more or less set cultural ceremony and is expected to flow well by the participants in the ritual we call eating out. This is the ritual that most people think of as service. And at a primary level it is. And the flow of the ritual is part of upon what we base the tip we give to the waitress. If it is out of order or not done well, we feel that the ritual we expected has been violated so sometimes, people tip lower. The ceremony goes as we expected, and we tip as expected, around 15%.

And the ceremony is repeated ritualistically in most places to eat except fast food places which have their own rites. No names exchanged, menu overhead, “Can I take you order?” Repeated into a microphone and asked to stand to the side while waiting for the food or pre-cooked and wrapped then pulled off a stainless steel food retainer. Put into a bag. “That’ll be $3.45.” Thank you. Come again.” This is the expected ritual. No social interaction really just process. Just simple, relatively quick service. In fact, if a counter person starts or a customer asks a common eating out service question such as “do you recommend the double hamburger or the bacon, mushroom, cheese, hugie today?” there is usually a very puzzled look from the counter person accompanied by a blank stare or a shrug of “what?.” This is not part of the expected impersonal service ritual after all.

Unless one goes to Durgin Park. Durgin Park breaks the rules. The customer is not only often wrong, but is actively shown to be an inconvenience. Personalized experience goes out the window there when customers are seated rather impersonally at a table with people they do not know, nor may not ever wish to know. Being made to feel important and valuable is just not something they do well, if at all. But they would be missing an important reality of what customer service really is.

Durgin Park’s concept of service would make most customer service experts pull out their hair and predict its doom. According to most business gurus, rude, discourteous service should, kill the place. And as noted, there must be something to that belief since Durgin Park has only been around doing the same thing for only 80 years. And people are willing to stand in line every day to be disrespected. Its questionable service should give the place no more than, say, another 80 years, give or take a decade.

Unless, they start to be too nice to the customers. That could be their downfall.

The reason is simple. People expect to be treated rudely. That is part of the expected experience. People go there with the expectation that they will be treated disrespectfully and are disappointed if they are not as was the man in the second group of Durgin Park diners. He was upset because he expected bad-mannered service and didn’t get it. His expectations were disrupted and he felt unfulfilled.

We go to the fast food places for just what they say they are. For getting food quickly. It is the food we are after. Not the event or the ceremony of eating out. The food is what will get us to come back. Not the service. There really is very little to consider at a fast food place. I mean “would you like fries or a drink with that” does not seem to qualify as the kind of service we have been told we have to always provide if we want to make people customers for life. Yet, McDonald’s, Burger King, Sonic, Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, Carl’s and many others have certainly created customers for life – even if their food may shorten it as the critics claim.

So what is learned from all this? It is not the sizzle, not the actions that we call service that can do it alone. Certainly, good service as in treating customers absolutely wonderfully is an incontrovertible aspect of building a solid customer relationship. No doubt. And very, very important but the concepts of customer service that have been bandied about are at best just part of the issue. They are not the issue itself.

Customer service is not a simple ritualistic rite that fit all businesses Customer service is built not on adages and smiles but on customer expectations. And Durgin Park certainly proves that.

Comments? Thoughts? Disagreements? Other customer service issues.
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