Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ron and the Pajama Man

This is an example of over-the-top, almost beyond belief, good customer service.

This really happened--about a month after opening a new store in Northern California, we had an audit scheduled so I was in the store very early, about 5:30 AM. I was sitting, talking to the manager, and heard the door open. I looked up and saw a tall, 40-ish man wearing pajamas, and fluffy slippers, walking past the counter. He dropped two dollars on the counter and walked on to the coffee bar. Ron, the manager, had obviously seen this before. The Pajama Man, as he became known, poured himself a cup of coffee, reached into the pastry case, pulled out an apple fritter, and headed out the door (I knew his purchase was an even $2). Out of habit, and a little irritated that Ron didn't do it first, I said, "Thank you Sir." Pajama man grunted, not loudly, and kept walking.

I looked at Ron as the door swung closed and asked, "What the heck was that all about?" Ron said, "The man started coming in about the third day we were open. The first day he stopped at the counter to pay for his stuff, but since then it was the same as today, two bucks on the counter, coffee, apple fritter, and he's gone. I think he lives right behind us, so it's a short walk for him--and he's in here every day, 7 days a week, since we opened." I said, "Cool."

About six months later, I was on my way to work, very early again, about 6:00 AM, and I got a "911" page. This was before cell-phones, so my employees were trained to call my pager and key in 911 and the store's three digit store ID number. I didn't get them often, but when I did it was not good. Historically, the 911 page meant the store had been robbed. This page came from the new store. I wasn't far away, but my heart was pounding as I imagined the worst possible scenario. I sped up a little, as much as I could--it was very foggy, thick Tule fog, famous in Northern California. As I pulled onto the lot, my heart sank--there were California Highway Patrol officers standing at the front door. I jumped out of the car, reaching for my ID, and asked, "Is anybody hurt?" The officer said, "Doesn't look like it. The manager ran out the door just as we walked in. He said he had an emergency, asked us to please wait, that his boss would be here any minute. So, you're the boss?" I told him I was as he looked at my company ID. He said, "Let's check out the inside and if it looks OK, we'll hand it over to you." We checked out the store and everything looked fine. No money missing, no merchandise missing that I could tell, so I thanked the officers and they left. By that time, there were customers waiting to come in, so I starting taking care of them. A few minutes later, I saw the manager zoom past the front of the store on his bicycle (he lived a few blocks away and often rode his bike to work). After a minute or so, he walked in the door, soaking wet, muddy, flushed face, and said, "Am I fired?" I said, "Probably. What the hell is going on?"

Here's his story: Ron said, "It was about 5:30. Pajama man came in, like he has everyday for six months, more than 180 times, and as soon as I saw him I panicked. There was a construction crew in here a few minutes earlier and they cleaned out the pastry case. I was trying to think of what I was going to do. He poured his coffee and reached in the case and then noticed it was empty. He put his coffee down and walked out. Didn't say a word. Then, just as he rounded the corner these CHiPs drove up and I got an idea. I paged you and then I ran out and told them I had an emergency and asked them to wait until you got here. I didn't slow down to give them a chance to say no, and I jumped on my bike and rode (two miles, round trip, in blinding fog) to the other store to get an apple fritter. I got back and jumped over the fence to give Pajama man his apple fritter. He must have made his own coffee because he was sitting on his deck drinking it when I got there. I know it was extreme, but I panicked. It wasn't just the 180 straight days, his whole family comes here, he and his wife both buy gas here, the two kids are in here all the time, his wife just yesterday bought $50 worth of ice and soda for a party they're having. I'm sorry I just didn't know what else to do."

All I could say was, "So, I should tell the California Highway Patrol that the emergency you had was pastry-related?"

I didn't fire Ron. I'm confident he realized, after the fact, that his actions were too "extreme" as he said, and better planning would keep this from happening again. I had him call our pastry vendor and make sure they left an extra fritter in a box, behind the counter, just in case. Secretly, I was extremely proud that he was willing to go the extra mile (or two, in the fog, on his bike) to provide excellent service.

**URGENT SERVICE UPDATE** It's just too easy. My wife tried to return a pair of defective shoes to Rack Room Shoe store today, and the cashier was rude and incompetent. She, un-named cashier, snapped at my wife, "You have to have the box or your receipt." So, my wife produced the receipt. Then the cashier said, "It's normal wear and tear. You can't return them." My wife said, "I'm not looking for a full refund, but these are Nike shoes--that cost $65 and are less than two months old. Some kind of plastic piece in the heel is broken and my son can't wear them." The cashier repeated, "It's normal wear and tear. You can come back when the manager is here, if you want." My wife, not the most patient person in the world, asked when the manager would be there, got the date, time, cashier's name, and told her she would return." She bought another pair of Nike shoes for the son, another $65.

Rack Room has always done a pretty good job for us. My standards are lower than in years past, so I'm satisfied that they have a good product, decent prices, and the service is not rotten. But, sometimes, service is rotten and someone should take note. The cashier was trained to put-off customers, or she saw her manager do this at some point, or she was simply not empowered to provide good service. Whatever the excuse, it's not acceptable. We'll take it up with the manager, but I'm not optimistic he/she will be any better.

Customer Dis-Service

I just attended an award event where my company gave awards to operators that gave good service over the past year. It was a nice event, nice people, but alas, they are a very small group. Service, good service, is woefully rare in the world, and is especially lacking in certain industries. Since I've been in one of those industries for so many years I have a million stories about just how bad it can be--not so many stories about how good it can be, but a few. So, I'm posting a series of anecdotes, mostly factual, about customer service. The first one is about "Mark and the French Fries."

I was working for one of the big burger chains in about 1980-something. Mark was one of my assistant managers, a nice guy, but like a lot of people dealing with the public, had a tendency to get a little defensive when confronted with a problem. We were very busy, one day around lunch time, and I heard shouting coming from the front counter area. I hurried around from the kitchen just in time to hear a customer shout at Mark, "I'll never come back here again!" I was too late to intervene and watched from a distance as the customer grabbed his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and grandson and headed out the door (I had seen him in there before). I looked at Mark and as I asked what happened, I got the distinct impression that he was really proud of himself--he looked "puffed-up," had a little smile on his face, like a kid that had just done something special in front of his Mom. He said, "the guy said we shorted him an order of fries, but I knew we didn't because I put the order together myself. I wasn't going to let him get over on me!" I was stunned--all this over an order of fries? Mark went on, "He might as well have called me a liar. I know I put the fries on his tray." Before he could continue, I interrupted, "Go sit in my office and wait for me. I'll be there in just a minute." He looked startled--I'm sure that's not what he expected me to say, but he turned and went back toward the office. I ran out the front and managed to get to the angry customer before he drove away. My apology didn't quite smooth things over, but it helped a little.

I went back inside and sat down to talk to Mark. I wasn't too sure how to get my point across, but I've always believed direct is the best approach. So, I started by telling him he had really screwed up, that I couldn't imagine a worse response to the customer's complaint, that this may have cost us tens of thousands of dollars--and that got his attention, so he asked, "What do you mean 'tens of thousands?'" I explained, "Look at the customer--three generations of a family, who were regular customers. If we handled them well, right, they might continue to shop with us for decades, even generations beyond that. The four of them came in about once a week and spent $16, more or less. That works out to $832 a year, but could be more--there's another son; if he gets married has a family, and we're still treating them well, it could grow to $1000, or more, for many years to come. You put that in jeopardy over a 39 cent order of fries. Do you think you handled this the best way?"

Mark admitted he screwed up, and I think he learned a valuable lesson. There's a big picture, one of the keys to success in retail, "You have to respect the person standing at the counter with money in their hands trying to give it to you!"

Next installment "Ron and the Pajama Man," coming soon.