Understanding mountains of misery

Restaurant customer service

Service is the compelling feature of a restaurant business. Photo via Flickr user Office de tourisme

As we’ve discussed in previous conversations, ‘Moments of Misery’ happen when businesses fail to meet customer expectations. These moments decrease the lifetime value of current customers and potentially cost you new business because of negative word-of-mouth.

As they say in New Orleans, ‘Stuff Happens’… or something like that. How do you turn a moment of misery into one of ‘truth’ or ‘magic’? The first basic strategy is to listen or understand and know what it is they really want.

Bringing on a Mountain of Misery

Several years ago, a local restaurant found itself in a social media firestorm that expanded to television and newspaper. Ultimately, revenue dropped off and company representatives pleaded with the public to return. All of this could have been avoided if someone… anyone in this business, had listened and identified the actual problem.

Basically, a group of customers were having lunch, in-between meetings, on a day the restaurant was busy and short-staffed. These aren’t necessarily unusual circumstances in that industry. One customer pointed out a hair in her salad to the server. The server responded, “It is not my fault. I did not put it there.” Upset with the rude response, the group asked to speak to the manager and was told, “She is too busy.” Eventually, that manager got the owner, who was already stressed. The owner promised to pay for the meal and said, “Let me ask you something! Did she charge you for it?” Ultimately, the confrontation escalated with the owner yelling at the customers to leave the restaurant. Upset, with the experience, one individual took to social media, venting and sharing the experience on line, where it went viral, reaching tens of thousands of people… and ended up as the opening story for a local news station.

Avoiding a Mountain of Misery

You and I can easily see how this situation could have been avoided. Initially, the misery stemmed from the hair in the salad. The server could have resolved this with a simple, “I’m sorry, can I get you a new salad or would you like something else?” Certainly, I would have expected them to comp that individual’s meal (moment of truth) and possibly offer some incentive (moment of magic) to return for a more positive restaurant experience. The server’s response, however, changed the problem from hair to rude behavior. Refusing to address the group, the manager reinforced the negative perception, and when the owner eventually talked to them, he focused on the hair when the problem had become the employee’s behavior. I believe, if he had listened and said something to the effect that he was sorry for the server’s behavior and would speak to her about it, the customer’s emotions would have dissipated, at least somewhat. He could have offered to bring the table desert, drinks, and/or offered an additional incentive to return for a better experience.

I don’t believe, in every situation, the customer is always right. However, customers have to be satisfied, to earn their lifetime value. LISTEN… know what the customer perceives the problem to be, and resolve it.


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Russ Moorehead

Russ Moorehead is a veteran Marketing Professor at Des Moines Area Community College as well as the chair of the Marketing/Management Department. He holds an MBA from Northern Iowa University.

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