APU Business Careers Careers & Learning Original

How Poor Customer Service Kills Businesses (Part I)

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

This article is the first in a three-part series on customer service strategy.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I ordered chicken wings from a local restaurant for dinner. I went out and picked them up. When I got there, the employee behind the counter took my payment and then handed me a large bag and told me that all of our wings, sides, and condiments were inside. I thanked her and left.

Start a management degree at American Public University.

When I got home and opened the bag, I realized that half of the wings I ordered were missing from the bag. Shame on me for not checking at the restaurant, I guess.

But I was still irritated at the mistake. I was hungry and ready to eat, but half of our meal had been forgotten. I called the restaurant right away.

The employee who answered the phone was the same one who handed me the bag — I recognized her voice. When I told her what happened, she transferred me to the manager on duty.

He was polite enough, and when I told him his employees forgot half of my order, he was very apologetic. He put me on hold to go back into the kitchen and check on it. When he returned to the phone, he confirmed that the other half of my order was still waiting there. Apparently, it had been prepared and was just not put in the bag.

Naturally, the manager pivoted to how the problem could be resolved. He gave me two options: I could either return to the store and pick up the rest of my order, or he could credit me back the money I paid for the half of the wings that I didn’t receive the first time.

I sighed and told him to just issue me a refund for the missing half of my meal. I have not ordered from that wing place since then, and I don’t intend to do so ever again.

Why My Experience Serves as a Lesson in Proper Customer Service

If you’re wondering why I was disappointed with the manager’s suggestions for resolving the problem in this story, then this three-part article series will serve as a powerful lesson in proper customer service. Far too often, business owners and managers — people with decision-making power over service-related issues — fail to recognize and follow important principles for customer service that can make or break the survival of service-driven businesses like hotels, restaurants, theme parks, airlines and cruise lines.

One important customer service principle is to recognize what justice requires in instances of service failure. And in many cases — including my encounter with the wing place — managers underestimate what is warranted.

Let’s review what happened here. The restaurant forgot to give me half of my order, and the manager proposed that I either come back to the restaurant to get it or accept a refund for that portion of the order. What’s wrong with this scenario is that it doesn’t account at all for the frustration and disappointment that the restaurant’s failure had caused me.

A business transaction is an exchange of money for something of value. In this case, I paid the restaurant a mutually agreed-upon price for an agreed-upon amount of food. Implicit in that agreement was the understanding that the restaurant would prepare that food in a responsible way, I would come to pick it up, and the restaurant would tender the complete order without any mistakes or deception.

But that’s obviously not what happened here. I ordered the wings, paid the money and drove to the store to pick up my meal. I fulfilled every one of my duties under the agreement.

But the restaurant did not. They made all the wings, but through carelessness they only gave me half of them. And then they let me drive home without the complete order that we had agreed upon. They breached the implied “contract” we had created for the food.

When Fixing a Mistake, Managers Should Consider More than Just a Balance Sheet

Now consider what the proverbial ledger looks like under each of the manager’s suggestions. In the first case, I have to agree to spend my additional time and energy to drive back to the store and pick up the second half of the wing order. Also, the restaurant keeps my money for the entire order, as if the mistake had never happened.

In the second case, the restaurant refunds my money for the part of the meal that I didn’t receive. But they also get to keep those wings and possibly sell them to the next guest who orders hot wings. Meanwhile, I get my money back but I don’t get what I really wanted in the first place: the complete wing order that I originally called in.

The problem with both of these suggestions is that they fail to account for the annoyance, aggravation and disappointment that the failure had caused their customer. Time and stress is worth something, and when a business screws up, making a customer whole again is about more than just squaring up the financial balance sheet. It’s about recognizing and addressing the extent to which the screwup fell short of the customer’s expectations and compensating for that, too.

You might be thinking, “OK, so what should the manager have done?” I’m glad you asked. In the next part of this article series, I’ll cover additional customer service principles, what the manager should have done and why.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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