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There’s a little restaurant nearby where my husband and I have been enjoying breakfast and lunch for many years.
In fact, we eat there so frequently that we’ve dubbed it “the center of the universe”. We visit with friends, with family and even with clients and prospects.
The people have been fantastic and we’ve made friends and even connected with some of them outside the restaurant.
My only complaint is the fact that they close at 3PM, and if you know anything about us, that’s about the time we can usually pry ourselves out of our chairs and away from our desks for lunch. Many are the days we sneak in at 2:55PM and order in the doorway as we take off our coats, sans menu. And they always accommodate.
Recently, we popped in for a quick pancake fix before work. We had an hour to spare – plenty of time to stuff our faces and get on with our day.
When our waitress asked if we were ready to order, Ralph and I glanced at each other in that silent “Ready”? way but apparently that was too long a pause because our waitress assured us she would be back to take our order and disappeared.
While waiting, three other tables were seated around us. Three other tables were brought beverages. By the time I caught our waitress’s attention again, three other tables had already gotten their food.
We ordered pancakes.
The manager stopped by to say hello and we exchanged a brief “good morning” in a way that left me wondering if there was some secret conclave going on somewhere that everyone simply had to rush back to, because the four occupied tables couldn’t possibly be that demanding.
It was 45 minutes later when I finally flagged the waitress down and asked her to give us to-go boxes instead of bringing our food to the table. Remember, we only had an hour – which abutted a phone call that we fully expected to be finished in time to make.
Fifty minutes later I finally got up and walked into the kitchen to find her. Fifty five minutes later I was standing there with a box of food growing cold in my hands while she disappeared to make change.
I suppose we were lucky that we were only 15 minutes late to our phone call.
As we drove back to our office with cold soggy pancakes in a plastic box, the storm clouds started gathering over my head.
I’m never coming back here, I thought. I’m so over this.
Isn’t this the same place I loved enough to visit, sometimes twice a day, for years? Great people, great food, great service…
How could one bad experience trump all that? Could I be so shallow, so fickle? Come on, a long wait? Get over it, right?
Not satisfied with my feelings on the matter, I started thinking about why I’d had such an immediate and visceral reaction to something that wasn’t even that bad.
When A Good Experience Tarnishes
There’s no way I’m going to break up with a place because of one bad experience. I love that place…
Except… I don’t.
There’s been a noticeable shift in the people-factor. The manager who used to greet us, sit down with us and chat about our lives and generally act as if we were the coolest people she ever met is gone – replaced with the “hello how are you?” manager who says those words like everyone else does, with about two seconds to spare for you to quickly spout “good!” and move on.
Some of the wait staff who we were friendly with are gone – replaced with the “Hi-I’m-Kerry-and-I’ll-be-taking-care-of-you-today-can-I-get-you-coffee” variety.
The hostess, who used to know exactly the table we wanted and wrote my name down on the list before I’d even walked in the door if she saw us pull up in the parking lot is gone – replaced with Miss Eye-Rolling “you want what table?”
We’ve tried engaging the “new people”. We’ve attempted more in-depth conversations with the manager, in spite of which, it seems like she’s meeting us for the first time every time we visit.
We haven’t even snuck in at 2:55 in a long time!
As I examined my feelings in light of our one bad experience, I realized that it wasn’t one bad experience.
We’ve been having “bad experiences” since we first started going.
More times than I can count, the pancakes were inedible. We sent them back sometimes… more than once in the same sitting! The bacon came out soggy. The omelet that wasn’t supposed to have sausage had sausage.
We sent food back plenty of times. They replaced it, and sometimes comped us the meal if it was egregious.
Some days they put us on the list and then forgot about us. We waited and watched as people who came in after us were seated and served before us. It was only when we reminded them that we were still standing there that they realized their mistake and apologized.
Sometimes the glasses were dirty or the silverware missing. Sometimes it took forever to get served.
Once, as my husband slid into a booth, his pants snagged on a nail that had poked through a dilapidated and unkempt cushion. There was much blood and hysteria followed by profuse apologies and free meals all around.
And yet we kept going back.
Were we gluttons for punishment? Did we just not notice that the center of the universe was more like the pit of despair?
No, actually – we just had a great experience there. Minus the food, minus the setbacks, minus the lack of pants – the people there treated us in a way that trumped it all.
They talked to us – moreover they appeared to enjoy it.
They were kind and polite to us – apologies, real ones, along with the occasional free meal followed every misstep.
They knew us – and they paid attention to us in a way that ensured we always got the table we wanted, had our beverages waiting for us and generally felt important.
As the staff turned over, that experience started to wane until it disappeared altogether. In the absence of that experience, this restaurant is just a place that makes pretty good pancakes most of the time.
And it’s a place that can lose my business over one delayed meal.
So why did I tell you this? It’s not to complain about a business. It’s not to prove how much I know about the right way to treat customers.
It’s simply to point out that I’m human. And you’re human. And we make decisions based on how we feel about being human and treated as such in any given circumstance.
It’s also to point out that experience matters. And that experience doesn’t always mean service. The truth is, the service at that restaurant wasn’t always stellar. Sometimes it stunk. But the experience saved it. The relationships, the conversations, being paid attention to, taken care of, elevated to more than simply “customer”.
Imagine if we could live in a world where every business elevated its “customer” to “human”.
You can’t fake this kind of thing. You can’t share cute Facebook updates or send out helpful Twitter posts and call it a good customer experience. You can’t give out coupons or send email flyers and call it a good customer experience.
You either do it, or you don’t. It has to be a natural and regular part of your human interactions and not something you call “marketing” and put back in the box at the end of the day.
So next time you’re obsessing about your email newsletter or the call-to-action on your website, next time you’re worried about publishing a blog on time or whether your logo perfectly represents your mission, think about this.
And remember that being human, treating others as such and creating a great experience for your customers will trump everything, every time.