We’ve all been there. And it’s the kind of experience that drives us all absolutely crazy.
Probably because it happens. A lot.
It’s 11:02 a.m. Maybe you’ve been in an important meeting or just arrived from the airport, but you walk into a restaurant, and you want some scrambled eggs.
Here’s what you might hear. Take your pick:
“Sorry, we stopped serving breakfast at eleven.”
“We serve eggs only at breakfast.”
“The kitchen is shifting over to lunch.”
“Sir, if you’d only been able to get here fifteen minutes sooner, . . .”
No matter how it comes out of someone’s mouth, the basic answer is the same:
Can’t help you.
As I said, everybody has had to deal with this. And, as I also said, it can drive you crazy. You’re not asking the kitchen to make you a waffle, pancakes, or even eggs Benedict. You’re not asking them for an order of bacon (although they probably have some sitting over on a counter that they can heat up in a few minutes and toss into a club sandwich).
All you’re asking for is someone in the kitchen to pick up a skillet, put it on the burner, and cook up a couple of scrambled eggs. But the server treats you as if you were trying to place an order for Peking duck—from scratch, prepared by a chef flown in nonstop from Beijing.
Maybe you try to argue with the staff about throwing a couple of eggs into a pan. Maybe you shrug and ask to see the lunch menu.
Or maybe you walk out and try to find someplace else to eat.
That’s because something like this should never, ever happen.
But it does happen, all the time—and in different ways. You may telephone a hardware store with an important question, only to hear that everyone’s busy. “Can you call back?”
Or maybe you’re in a department store and ask if they have a particular wallet in stock. “No.” Not a suggestion that they’d be happy to show you some similar items—just no.
Can the doctor take a few minutes to talk about your lab results? “Make an appointment.”
For me, these are all a question of hospitality. And customer service and hospitality are everything, no matter what the business is.
To me, the definition of hospitality is simple. It’s however you handle a customer. Nothing more, nothing less—how you treat him or her, how you respond to what he or she asks for, and your ability (and willingness) to stay flexible. The ultimate goal of interacting with a customer is to make him or her feel like the only customer you have in the entire world. Why? Because as I tell my own employees, there are no spare customers.
It starts with how you talk with them. And you don’t need to memorize any special words or magic sentences. The rule is simple: when talking to a customer, be sure to make the conversation all about them. Let them talk about their needs, what they hope to get out of buying your product or service. If they want to complain, listen. They want to be heard more than anything. Since you’re trying to make them feel like they’re the only customer you have, act like it. When dealing with that one customer, no one or nothing else matters at that moment.
If you want to boil it down even further, I have a rule of thumb that I say almost every day: it’s free to be nice.
Think about that. As a business owner or entrepreneur, does it cost you anything to be courteous to each and every customer? Of course not! Being nice costs you nothing. But, by the same token, remember: it can cost you a hell of a lot to be rude.
Sometimes it’s not the easiest thing in the world to be nice, no matter how much sense it may make from a business standpoint. Maybe your spouse or significant other said something that upset you right before you left for work. Maybe something else is going on in your life that makes it awfully difficult to be nice and cheery with each and every customer you deal with.
To which I have a simple answer: be plappy.
By that I mean “play happy.” No matter how upset or worried you may be about other things in your life at the moment, do everything within your power to project a happy mood when you’re on the job.
That’s an ever-present rule of thumb at all of my businesses. When you step foot inside one of my businesses and you work for me, be plappy if you have to. One reason is that, as I said earlier, no one cares that your dog chewed up a $300 pair of shoes or that you have to meet with your kid’s principal after work. That’s reality.
The other reason that rule always stays in place in my businesses is that the customer experience is all that matters. We’re in the hospitality business, so we have to be sure to be hospitable all the time.
And no matter the specifics of what you do, you’re in the hospitality business as well.
Follow-through is another aspect of hospitality. For example, if you say you’re going to deliver the product on the thirteenth at three o’clock, deliver it exactly at that time. Don’t call minutes before it is due and say it’s going to be three days later than you had planned. Even worse, don’t call after the product was due to be delivered and say it’s going to be even later. (Your customer already knows that, by the way.)
Just as important, don’t offer up an excuse to explain the delay. Nobody cares that your driver’s kid got sick and he had to pick him up early from school. Not to sound mean or heartless, but somebody who orders something from you doesn’t care that your mother-in-law died.
I’m sorry your child got sick. My condolences for your mother-in-law’s passing. But if I’m a customer who was told that a product I ordered would arrive on such and such a date and at such and such a time, all I’m focused on is the fact that something I was expecting—maybe something very important to me—isn’t going to arrive as planned.
We all have kids who get sick. Relatives and loved ones pass away. Personal problems crop up daily. You know that, and so do I. But a promise to a customer should be treated as something that shouldn’t be affected by the sorts of problems and unexpected events we all deal with constantly. Business would be a whole lot easier if life never got in the way, but it does.
There’s a simple way to address this problem. Try building in a few what-ifs. When you make a promise to a customer, take into account that something may go wrong or get in the way of keeping your commitment. Assume a worst-case scenario. Tack on a few extra hours or even days to give yourself a little cushion.
One way I do this is by being very careful about how I schedule my time. I generally avoid making commitments too far in advance. For me, I never build a schedule that’s longer than a couple of weeks or a month out. That way, if something comes up during that time frame, I’ve given myself enough time to find a work-around. You’re focused but also flexible.
That sets you up for a win-win. Either you deliver the product as planned or, even better, you call your customer and say the product came in earlier than expected.
If you offer a due date that the customer feels is too far away, now is the time to explain why it has to be that way. It’s not an excuse; it’s an explanation. And from the customer’s standpoint, an explanation of why something is going to take as long as it will to arrive is easier to accept than some sort of excuse later regarding its slow delivery. When you make an excuse, you’re basically asking a customer for forgiveness because you didn’t deliver as promised.
The overall goal is to make certain a customer feels special. And a customer who feels special will bring you more business and tell all of her friends how much she loves your service.
Of course, there will be times when things don’t go as planned. Maybe a delivery is going to be late, or something on the menu isn’t to your customer’s complete satisfaction. It’s critical to make that misstep up to the customer in some way.
In our businesses, we have lots of things at our disposal. For instance, if five people are eating dinner at a table, and one diner gets his meal ten minutes after the others, we’ll likely comp that meal. If someone stays at one of our hotels or resorts and has a negative experience, we may offer them a free night’s stay so that we can show them how we do things right.
But it’s also a balancing act. If someone spends fifty dollars and is unhappy, we’re certainly not going to give her something worth $300 to make it up to her. Not only is that completely out of balance, but it’s an exaggerated apology. While you want to right the wrong, you may inadvertently be making something out to be a bigger deal than it actually is.
It circles back to making certain the customer knows you’re listening. Ask questions and react accordingly. And resolve the problem as quickly as possible, so it doesn’t turn into a monster.
Keep in mind also that there will be times when a dissatisfied customer is being unreasonable. There are people who will sit down at a restaurant, eat an entire steak, and then complain that it was overcooked.
First, be nice and respectful, no matter what you may be thinking about that particular customer. Then, remind the customer that he, in fact, did polish off the entire steak. Had he said something earlier, you could have done something, possibly replacing the steak with another meal. But since he did eat the whole thing, the only logical thing for you to conclude was that the steak was perfectly fine. In a nutshell, maintain a balanced, polite demeanor while you’re explaining that there’s nothing else you can do.
Is that telling a customer no? In a way, it is. In th...