Bad customer service undermines good for business

by Bryan Salvage
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – One of my favorite regular assignments is visiting and interviewing meat and poultry packers and processors at their facilities throughout the United States. A standard question I ask toward the end of each interview is, “What do you see as future opportunities for your company?” Many smaller packers and processors, in particular, have answered, among other things, picking up business that their larger competitors couldn’t properly handle.

When asked to expand on this, they have told me some of their retail or foodservice customers became unhappy with larger suppliers because they couldn’t properly satisfy last-minute orders or a change in their orders, there was a worsening lack of communication and amazingly some said (and I’m paraphrasing here), some customers told the smaller packers and processors that the attitude of some of the larger suppliers was, “This is what we offer; take it or leave it”.

As a result, some smaller players are doing a heck of a job not only surviving but thriving by focusing on providing impeccable customer service. One smaller packer on the East Coast recently told me he routinely has order changes called in on the day set for delivery—and his firm gladly provides such changes for his customers - smart move.

Not only has competition never been fiercer for packers and processors; the same applies to allied industries, including retail outlets that sell meat and poultry and restaurants offering meat and poultry dishes. If you operate such a retail store or restaurant and you disappoint a customer or diner just once, that unhappy customer most likely won’t return to your establishment because there are many other competitors who are willing to go the extra mile to get that their customers to return again and again.

Unfortunately, examples of how not to handle customers abound. Last week, my wife wanted to try a new Mexican food restaurant in neighboring Geneva, Ill. It was an easy place to find because it is on Main Street (Rte. 38) and just east of Third St., where my wife and I walk that old tree-lined street a lot during evenings after stores are closed because it’s a beautiful, very old town. In fact, scenes for “The Road to Perdition”, starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, were filmed just a block west of the restaurant.

But as soon as we walked inside of the new restaurant at about 8:10 p.m.—it didn’t have a very “inviting” feeling. For one thing, it was a very small place (maybe 10 tables inside and four outside)—and they were all filled with diners.

A couple walked in right before we did. The head waiter (possibly owner) had an expressionless face as he leaned close towards the man and softly spoke about 10 feet away—and soon the man and woman looked at each other strangely and walked out silently. I wasn’t close enough to hear what was said so I assumed the server told them there would be a long wait and the couple simply didn’t want to wait that long. So, I approached him and he looked at me almost as if annoyed and said, “Same thing. We’re not taking any more tables tonight” and he walked outside with an order for some folks seated at front-of-the-store at black, steel-mesh tables.

My wife and I couldn’t believe the rude brush-off. Maybe he was sick or maybe he hates his job. But how about saying to customers, “I’m sorry but we close at 9 p.m. and we will be unable to serve any more tables tonight.“ We shrugged it off, laughed a little in disbelief and walked several blocks south to one of our favorite Italian restaurants across the street from the old courthouse building. While walking, I morphed into Victor McgLaglen’s character, the bully, loud-mouthed landowner Squire "Red" Will Danagher in the John Wayne classic “The Quiet Man.” I jokingly told my wife gruffly in a fake Irish accent, “Write the name of that restaurant in me book. Now, draw a line through it,” which is what Danagher would say to his diminutive, fearful side kick whenever he met a man who angered him. We both laughed but agreed….. that restaurant is history.

The thing is, many new restaurants are opening in our Tri-Cities area—and many of them are Mexican restaurants. I feel bad for the protein and other food suppliers of that new restaurant because it won’t be in business long.

We also have a very popular retail meat market nearby, that we haven’t shopped at in three-and-a-half years. My wife and I stopped shopping there because it was oftentimes too crowded…almost like a mosh pit on Saturday mornings; most of the people behind the counter looked like high school kids who didn’t know much about the products; product consistency, particularly its high-priced, batch-processed jerky, was, well….very inconsistent; and phone orders would oftentimes be wrong (which we wouldn’t discover until after we got back home). But the straw that broke the camel’s back regarding that business for my family was the bad attitude of some of their employees.

Three holiday seasons ago, my wife needed a particular protein for Christmas dinner that I had to place on special order. I clearly explained we needed this particular protein at a specific size for an old family recipe. I was assured the order would come in correct and on time. Well, the order came in on time on Christmas Eve day…but it was not what we ordered. As I tried to compose myself among the throngs of frantic shoppers waiting to pick up orders, I worked my way to one of the senior managers and explained what had happened (in a very civil way.) His response? “That’s good enough for the recipe,” he said while looking at the product in my hands with a rather smug look on his face.....and he quickly returned to packing meat into a bag for another customer like I wasn't even there.

We now buy our meat and poultry at a privately-held supermarket in St. Charles, Ill., that we have shopped at for decades. Although it is not the least expensive meat and poultry around, the quality is superb and the meat-counter butchers and their assistants go out of their way to make sure you’re happy and satisfied. They special-order products with a smile—and always ask us several weeks later if we were happy with the order.

Somewhere along the line, many companies have run off the track when it comes to providing good, consistent customer service. It’s time for them to get back on track before unhappy customers write their business’ name in their book—and draw a line through it.

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