A Story About Customer Service

A Story About Customer Service

Today I want to talk with you about what makes for good customer service.  My husband and I just got back from a beach vacation and while it was wonderful, we met several folks on our travels that could be best be described as what not to do when it comes to customer service.  Let’s start with Mr. Seafood Market Man.

Rather than visit an International beach, we decided to stay in the U.S. and flew down to Dauphin Island which is an island in the Gulf on the Alabama side.  I learned of Dauphin Island from my mom, who also accompanied us on the trip.  She told us that there is really nothing there in terms of nightlife or things to do, it’s just you and the beach which sounded like heaven to us.  Knowing there would be few restaurants open in the off-season, we decided that we would take advantage of the local seafood market and cook most, if not all, of our meals.  I was super stoked to check out this market because Chad and I love seafood.  So first day there, away we went.

We get to the place and the guy behind the counter was pretty surly.  He didn’t seem too interested in helping us make decisions and at one point we’re pretty sure he lied to us about one of the types of shrimp we bought.  After two types of shrimp, coleslaw, shrimp and crab bisque, and of course, hushpuppies we figured we had enough food to feed the block.  As you can imagine, this excursion wasn’t cheap.  Didn’t matter that we just dropped nearly $100, the guy barely even thanked us for coming in.  On the way back to the condo, my mom told us that the last time she was there that the people were overly friendly, willing to answer any question you had, and encouraged you to try different ways of cooking their seafood.  Maybe the guy’s wife just left him.  Maybe he was hungover.  Maybe he was worried about fixing his roof that got blown off during the hurricane a week ago.  While we’re all human, if you choose to run a business that serves the public, even a smile goes a long way.  And your customers don’t leave calling you a douchebag once they are in their car.

Example two.  Again, not much on the island, we needed just a few things and so we stopped into a little food mart.  Evidently, they were having a bad day as well because as we were walking in the lady behind the counter was yelling at people that they didn’t have egg rolls, chicken tenders, or anything else that needed deep frying because their food truck delivery hadn’t made it in that morning.  Ok, we really just needed some bottled water and a bottle of wine, but thanks.  And again, when we paid, we barely got a thank you because the lady at the register was too busy yelling at the girl in the back.  At this point, we were like, what the heck is going on here?  And we still had one more errand to run but after the first two places, we kinda’ thought we should just head back to the condo and go lie on the beach for the rest of the day.  But, we’d heard great things about this little bakery so we decided to check it out anyway.

And oh my goodness we were not disappointed!  The ladies working there were by far the nicest people.  They were clearly happy to see us and were excited to talk about all the baked goods in their cases.  This was the polar opposite of the two places we’d just visited.  This is the kind of customer service you expect when you hear people talk about southern hospitality.  In the three examples, which of the places do you think we were recommending to complete strangers?  It certainly wasn’t Mr. Seafood Man or Miss No Fried Food Today Lady.

I’m sure you’ve all witnessed similar behavior when traveling or even when you’re not traveling.  You know businesses in beachy locations make all their money on tourism, so why would they want to drive customers away?  And frankly, this is true of any service business that makes its money serving the public.

If you are one of the lucky people who get to work with the public on a regular basis, I’m going to share with you a few ways about how you can provide the best service possible and keep your people coming back for more.

I’ve read tons of books about customer service and one of the best out there is called Lunchmeat and Life Lessons by Mary B. Lucas.  This book is near and dear to my heart because the family is from Kansas City and the author takes you through what it was like working for her father in the family business.  In fact, more than 70 years later, Bichelmeyer Meats is still in business and family-owned and operated.  While I’m not going to cover the whole book with you, I want to highlight the key takeaways.  First, Lucas suggests you want to make a lasting impression.  How do you do this?  By always remembering to put the ‘comeback sauce’ on every person you come in contact with.  Her dad told her that if someone comes in asking for a pound of lunchmeat, you give them a few more slices and smile and tell them you gave them a little bit more – whatever it takes to connect with people.  The point is to make sure your customers leave with the feeling of wanting to come back again soon.

The second part of the comeback sauce is that honesty is the best policy.  In the example of Mr. Seafood Market Man, he tried to tell us that no one gets this one particular type of shrimp fresh.  But, my mom knew he was lying based on a previous conversation she’d had with the owner the last time she was there.  Ugh!  I hate liars and I’d say most everyone else does too.  Now, there is a difference between being direct and being an asshole.  Let’s say you have to deliver bad news to someone like something they want is out of stock.  Rather than telling your customer that you don’t have the thing in your store and walking away, the better option would go something like this, “we are currently out of the item you’re looking for but so-and-so a couple of blocks over may have it, would you like me to call them and find out for you?”  See how easy that is?  It’s a polite way of saying no and also shows that you care about your people getting what they need.

Number two, admit your mistakes.  If you’ve screwed something up for one of your customers, own it.  It does you no good to play the blame game.  I’m a firm believer that there is very little, in the form of mistakes, that can’t be fixed.  Even something as simple as an apology will go a long way with people.  I know our first reaction tends to be, “it can’t have been me,” but that too is not helpful.  Even if it wasn’t you who made the error, take responsibility anyway.  Customers don’t care whose fault it is, they just want to be taken care of and they want to know you care.  So apologize, fix it, and move on.

While this next bit isn’t entirely about customer service, I feel it warrants mentioning because it’s just good advice for life and it’s “meet the challenge.”  This story is straight out of the book.  In July of 1951, the meat market had been doing very well and business was booming.  Then everything was turned upside down when a big flood wiped out the business.  For those of you who don’t know the history, the great flood of 1951 flooded more than one million acres in Kansas and 926,000 acres in Missouri and exceeded $935 million in damage which is equivalent to $9.21 billion in 2019.  This is how Lucas’s dad tells the story:

“‘Even with all the reports and the evacuation plans, my dad continued, ‘I really didn’t believe there would be a flood until it actually happened. It was the middle of the night and when your mother ran into the bedroom and woke me up screaming John, John wake up! It’s over the “L”.

It’s over the “L”?  What in the world does that mean?

‘The flood he replied. You know up the hill from the meat market where the Milgrams is grocery store is that’s the big vertical sign that reads M-I-L-G-R-A-M-S from top to bottom. She was screaming it’s over the L because the water was over the L in Milgrams.’

‘Wow,’ I replied if the flooded covered Milgrams that had certainly covered dad’s meat market.

‘I got out of bed and I went into the living room when I looked at the television pictures of the rising floodwaters and saw the M I and no G-R-A-M-S, I felt sick. I don’t need to tell you what was happening to the meat market. When the store up the hill was underwater. I thought a minute about what I might do. And then I told your mother to turn off the television set and come back to bed. She looked at me like I was crazy. But John the water is over the L she kept saying. Exactly. I told her the water’s over the L, there’s nothing I can do about it. Now come back to bed and let’s enjoy the fact that we can sleep late for a change.’

He smiled and seemed to get carried away in a memory for a moment, a memory that could have and probably should have been a bad one. And yet I could tell he did not look at it that way. ‘Over the L,’ I repeated.  ‘Your entire work world is underwater and a all you can think about as you got to sleep in for once in your life?

‘No,’ he replied. ‘That’s what I chose to think about at that moment. There’s a big difference. Sometimes you have to resign yourself to the fact that some things are just over the L.

He went on to explain that there were actually a lot of really good things that came out of the 51 flood. ‘I can tell you that as devastating as it was at the moment he said we would not be where we are today financially had it not been for that disaster. Because of the flood, I was offered a chance to borrow money at a 3% interest rate. I had no intention of doing that as I had saved enough over the years to rebuild the market myself. But a very wise friend told me to borrow all I could and to invest in real estate. Well, I did and I made some very wise decisions as to properties to buy that started a whole new income stream for our family that I never would have realized if it wasn’t For the flood, that’s why I firmly believe in the saying good luck. Bad luck. Who knows?

‘I got it, Dad,’ I said, and I meant it.”

What I hope you take away from all of this today is to figure out how you plan to put the comeback sauce on your daily interactions with people, that honesty matters, and regardless of the situation, you must always own your mistakes. And finally, when life gets you down, find ways to meet the challenge and understand that some things are just “over the L.”