When unpleasant customer service is worse than the initial problem

I took two colleagues to lunch to an upmarket wine bar café in South Melbourne where the atmosphere is excellent and food usually good. My colleagues enjoyed their meals (fish and vitello tonnato), my first two bites were also enjoyable, until I spotted two short black ‘lines’ in the sauce over the chicken. I moved them to my side plate – they both curled and one of my colleagues said “they’re beard hairs” – at which point we all looked through the servery where one of the staff with a black curly beard was busy preparing food.

Yuk. It was a match. My appetite vanished.

I finally got the attention of the waiter, who had been efficient and helpful at the start. I said look at these two “beard hairs” that were in my food. He looked annoyed, snatched the plates away, and took them straight to the kitchen servery window. Not a look or word to me. He said something to the staff and walked off back to the bar area. I got up and walked over to him: “Excuse me – do not order a replacement, I’ve lost my appetite”. Not a word. Blank look. The bill came, and of course they did not charge for my meal, but no apology… nothing.

I told a friend today who said maybe because I said ”beard hairs” it was more accusatory.

In light of this example, here’s five ways to aim for sensational service on a micro scale.

1. Treat every customer as special

That waiter should have attended to me first, not the kitchen staff, and apologised, said he would get a new meal immediately and offered something for free. And then he should have continued to look after our table in a special way. I would even encourage more damage control, perhaps a special peace offering or an apology from the kitchen.

There are days when you feel as though you’ve been treated as the worst customer and you have done nothing wrong. The service person’s avoidance of a problem, or “I can’t handle this” body language, or feigned interest, or their flat voice with face just glaring was unacceptable.

Of course, they may have had a hell of a day. Perhaps before one problem (me and my meal) materialised, someone had exactly the same, and sent the SNAFU-ometer into overdrive. It can be very tough attempting to treat every customer as special, but the reason it’s essential to care about everyone is because we all have the capacity and numerous opportunities to turn a customer’s day around.

Be the person who can fix a bad problem or turn an average experience into special (cue shafts of light and angel trumpets) and smooth the way to a better experience. How great is that?

Demonstrate consistency, high standards of delivery and remember what it feels like when you’re at the receiving end.

2. Don’t just satisfy – delight!

This is easier said than done sometimes and both are good objectives. Being satisfactory means that you’re consistently good at what you do, you’re attentive, have a fine memory and a genuine manner. The added dimension of delight requires being observant and deploying considerable finesse and attunement to individual needs, which in turn arises from proper training, solid practice and giving your best efforts.

No one wants staff who stand like shags on rocks and ignore, nor do that want a robotic “can I help you today?” Worst of all are the service staff who will never make eye contact, or on the phone never show enough interest or care.

3. Have a plan for unreasonable angry customers

They materialise, often when you least expect it. Some may be very rude and aggressive, while others exhibit a sense of entitlement. An angry customer demands you put things right, right now and don’t just stand there! They will indeed upset you if you allow it. The problem may or may not be your fault.

What can you do? The first thing you must do is listen to them. Not “I hear you”. Never “whatever”. Look at them, pay attention to what’s really going on.

Try to be calm even if you’d love to verbally sock the person. Don’t repeat back to them what they just told you – you’re likely to be strangled if you do.

Frame your response clearly and properly. Apologise for the problem or perceived problem, and assure them it will be dealt with immediately.

Then DEAL with it, solve it, no excuses. Above all, be responsible even though you may not have triggered a problem. Focus on solving it. It’s best to be low-key (not obsequious) and super-efficient when you do.

4. Respond quickly

Even when the answers aren’t final. You may not necessarily have the answer but be quick about finding one or locating the colleague who can help smooth matters.

5. Manage expectations

You are not delivering sensational service when untruthfully informing customers that “no” is not in your vocabulary. Far better to set existing and would-be clients straight by being honest and realistic in the first place.

It’s one thing to outperform yourself like the proverbial seal diving through hoops; it’s quite another to have some client constantly snapping their fingers. Manage expectations with good communications, and give and take on both sides.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace. See the rest of Eve’s blogs here.


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John Hutchinson
John Hutchinson
5 years ago

I went to get a Haircut at one of these Male oriented places with the “Hipster” Barbers and the young girls in short shorts greeting everyone.
The first time I went, I was offered a complimentary drink and seeing how I was being stung a 10% Sunday Surcharge, I decided I’d have a Ginger Beer…it never arrived and whilst mildly annoyed, so be it, it was going to be free anyway. The haircut was Ok and that’s all I was there for.
I decided to give it another go. You make your appointment on a Tablet that is screwed to the wall and I managed to negotiate that without to many problems.
I received my Text reminding me of my appointment 5 mins before and went to the salon. Joined a queue of others filing in for their appointed cut. The other 4 got seated and complimentary Drink orders taken and I’m left standing there !!! I stood for 5 minutes perusing the overpriced “product” on their shelves, went back to “waiting corale” outside the shop, and waited another 15minutes, went for a walk to the other end of the shopping centre and back (now 38 minutes after the appointment time). At that point I left.
At no point did the two girls (who I believe are only there as some sort of “hostess”) approach, apologize or acknowledge me.

At 12.54pm exactly 50minutes after my appointment I had a missed call from them wondering where I was.
Never again.

5 years ago

I would have said something after 10 mins otherwise I would have left…why did you even bother to waste almost
40 mins of your life waiting around for that type of service let alone business.
and those girls in those short shorts were being exploited at your expense…think about it!

John Hutchinson
John Hutchinson
5 years ago
Reply to  Taylor

You’re quite Taylor, you kind of fall into a “denial” that you could be that unimportant to them. It’s not until you recognize that it’s “only” $35.00 to them. My previous Haircut was fine and the Barber was quite good, however, Yes that is 45 mins I won’t get back. As for the Girls, I’m not sure what else they could be doing, given how poorly they have managed to do this job.

5 years ago

Eve it is a wonderful tale of woe you have told however it kind of misses the point as to what most likely is going on.
If the restaurant is well run, the staff would be briefed on exactly what to do in
a circumstance such as this. They would have even practiced this scenario.
It sounds like the place has little in place for this problem.
And the only reason for this is often a lack of interest in running the place
properly. They will not be interested in advice.
I would not go back there again.