Customer Service Lessons From The Road

Customer Service Lessons From The Road

This past week, while delivering a series of workshops titled Designing Better Customer Service in Tourism on behalf of TiCSA across South Australia's Mid North and Southern Flinders Ranges, I encountered two markedly different customer service experiences.

We started the roadshow in Watervale at the incredible Watervale Hotel where service is exemplary, proceeded the next day to repeat the workshop at Pichi Richi Park outside Quorn, where the owner cares deeply and makes everybody welcome, and finished on the third day doing the same in Port Pirie where the Port Pirie Golf Club personnel were warm and generous.

However, it was during the final 12 hours of this trip that I witnessed a textbook case of terrible customer service and one of sublime customer service. The former happened on our last night on the road, the latter happened on our way home during a brief stop at the town of Crystal Brook.

The Rare Restaurant Experience That Was Not Well Done

On our last night on the road I convinced my travelling companions to have dinner at a steak restaurant that had always been magnificent.

Having made a booking for 7.30, we arrived on time and after some discussion selected a wine from the wine list. Our young waiter was dutiful although was not well trained yet in wine. She brought back a wine from the same winery, but it was not the one we wanted.

Thankfully, she had asked us to check it before opening and we were able to show her the correct variety we sought. She happily went back to the wine rack in the corner near our table and was struggling to find our wine. I offered to help and she gladfully accepted. Alas, there were plenty of Wynns wines but neither of the two varieties were after. I then saw a different wine by my dear client, Flinders Run, and immediately ordered a bottle of that. It was not on the wine list, so she said she'd check with her manager who was off at a distance in the front office.

Our wine arrived and our meal order was taken.

One of the party ordered salmon, my other partner and I ordered the Wagyu Rump with a MB6 score (a measure of the highly-prized marbling of fat in the meat, leading to extra flavour), to be cooked medium rare.

Conversation flowed and then the meals arrived.

The first sign something was awry was the fact that despite my companion clearly asking for the sauce on the side of his fish, it was dolloped over half of it. The young waiter noticed this as she put the plate down and apologised. Our companion accepted the apology, waving it off as a small triviality.

Then our steaks were placed before us. We were struck by two things.

Firstly, how thin the cuts were. Most steak restaurants aim for thicker cuts to aid retention of juices and create a deliciously sumptuous aesthetic. Secondly, we both noticed the distinct lack of any marbling visible at all.

Curious, we cut into our steaks to find them cooked to medium or beyond and tasting, strangely, "off". Puzzled, we weren't sure what to do. I soon volunteered to talk to our waiter to see if my expectation about what marbling looked like was incorrect. She offered to ask the chef to chat with us. I returned to my seat, she went into the kitchen, returning moments later to say chef was on her way.

At least 10 minutes passed and we'd been hearing quite a clatter of pots and pans emanating from the kitchen immediately behind us, but no sign of the chef. When the young waiter appeared again at the other end of the now empty restaurant, I caught her attention and signalled that the chef had not appeared. She was surprised and immediately headed back to the kitchen.

Some moments later she emerged with the chef who came and stood before us, a few steps back from the table with arms folded. I said we were hoping to draw upon her wisdom to help us understand why we couldn't see marbling, in the hope that we could proceed eating with confidence.

She then began by saying that we had arrived late, unannounced, so she had turned off the char griller and that these items are too hot and heavy to turn back on again, so she just did our steaks in the pan and we could hardly expect to get the marbling when done that way.

We were quite surprised by this. I noted we had booked for 7.30 and arrived on time, so I was puzzled by the statement she had made. Well, she said, I hadn't seen any orders come through. I commented that we had had trouble getting our wine because the ones we had ordered were out of stock. She then floored us by commenting that she was sorry we couldn't get our Grange Hermitage but there was nothing that could have been done, unless we'd ordered earlier.

For reference, having arrived at 7.30, our order had been placed before 8.00, after a good 20 minutes of wine hunting, and the restuarant's website notes that it is open until 10.00pm. I finally sighed and said, thank you for explaining, but that I was rather embarrassed, having raved about this restaurant to my companions and now we had steaks that were quite inedible. She shrugged and returned to the kitchen.

The waiter was quite shocked and distressed and I told her that, ironically, I had been visiting teaching about customer service in tourism and that we could all tell that she was not at all at fault. I remarked that her attitude of empathising and trying to find solutions was exactly the sort of person hospitality needed (provided employers offered proper training). She was much relieved but still was crestfallen.

The waiter returned later to say we had been credited for the steak dishes. As we prepared to leave later that evening, the chef wandered back past saying that she was sorry, she felt like crying, and she hoped we'd come again, before disappearing back into the kitchen.

On the way out, the manager breezily took out payment, having stayed in the safety of the front office throughout the whole affair, leaving her subordinates to face up to scrutiny.

Thankfully, we were all people who were relaxed and kindly throughout; heaven forbid if we'd been of hotter temperaments. What would the staff had done then?

A New Day, A Warm Welcome In Crystal Brook

Next morning, setting off at 6.30am, we pulled into Kupsch Bakery in Crystal Brook. It was like we'd gone to opposite land. By the way, the image for this article is of one of their Easter-themed donuts.

We stepped in to the bakery before 7.00am and a woman emerged from the baking area with a warm smile, asking what we'd like. As we placed our orders, I turned and noticed a burly butcher opening the front doors on the other entrance to the building. He promptly turned, smiled, and said g'day in a warm and genuine manner. We then ordered some food amid good natured chatter.

Our driver said she'd go and get petrol while our delicious croissants were toasting and I joined her.

Emerging from the car in the service station, a woman was returning to hers. She stopped, made a point of looking at us both warmly, and said good morning. Then, a rugged looking man on the way back to his vehicle, caught our eyes and said, g'day.

Upon returning to the bakery, our other companion had noted how the staff had been bantering happily with tradies and other early customers.

It was everything anyone could expect in a customer service scenario. It's like the whole town lived and breathed the essence of good customer service, which is, at its heart, to be decent humans serving decent humans and choosing kindness as the default operational mode.

Customer Service Lessons Learned

The three major customer service lessons arising from this experience to me are as follows.

Training and Attitude: Hiring people with great attitude is absolutely crucial for customer service BUT it becomes a futile process if you do not provide training so they can use their interpersonal gifts for the benefit of customers. The owners of the establishment would do well to engage with someone like Glenn Malycha from Winepro Australia who oozes everything stellar about customer service, especially in that zone where hospitality intersects with the selection and service of alcohol. Take a look at the video, below.

Understanding and Delivering on Promises Ensuring all staff know what "promise" your business makes to customers so they have a north star to navigate by in all their duties. For example, for a steak restaurant to promise great steak cooked well, especially steaks drawing our attention to marble scores, to even contemplate slipping through a suboptimal steak should make each person shudder. To fail at this is like substituting the expectation of a succulent steak for the shock of paying $42 for an overcooked minute steak one might pick up from Coles or Woolies. In a properly trained kitchen, surely the practice of sticking a head out the door before turning off char grillers would be the most minimal possible act of care?

The Power of a Smile Remembering that smiling is a powerful way to forge a quick bond with other people, making both the smiler and the recipient feel good or, at least, welcomed and noticed. I have written about that here in Customer Service Marketing In A Time Of Covid. It seems everybody in Crystal Brook understands this. It's also not a bad barometer for measuring how much one is at peace with oneself, something touched on by David Sandler in his IR model of reminding us that we have our own Identity that sits at our core, quite separate from our Roles. If we can find a way to honour the value of our selves, we become much more likely to be positive, bouyant, and resourceful in our various roles.

Next Steps

These contrasting experiences underscore the complexities of customer service.

The journey from Watervale, through Pichi Richi Park to Port Pirie, and finally, Crystal Brook, was as much a lesson in hospitality as it was a tour of South Australia's tourism potential.

As industry professionals, let's take these lessons to heart, striving for the excellence witnessed in Crystal Brook and learning from the shortcomings observed in our last night on the road.

In doing so, we not only enhance our service but also elevate the entire tourism experience.

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