When department store tycoon Gordon Selfridge opened his namesake store in London, over 100 years ago, his flair for marketing was apparent from the moment the front doors opened. As one of many innovations, he located the perfumery, or scent department as it was called then, adjacent to the main entrance to mask the smell of horse-drawn traffic. Today shoppers are typically greeted with a fine mist of fragrance as they step into department stores around the world and yet, Mr. Selfridge’s best-known legacy may be the expression; “The customer is always right.”
Although some experts credit Marshall Field as the brains behind the saying, the likelihood is that it was Mr. Selfridge who put a spin on the maxim originally coined by hotelier César Ritz; “The customer is never wrong.” Bottom line, it probably doesn’t matter because the expression took root a very long time ago and I’m not so sure it has —or should have — the same power, today. Strong words.
The problem is unrealistic expectations when it comes to customer service. And it’s pervasive. One industry particularly prone to excess, or some would say abuse, is the hospitality industry where a typical cliché involves a disgruntled wine snob demanding replacement of a half-empty bottle. This is not to suggest that the motivation of every complaining “connoisseur” is deception but to point out that the responsibility for absolute and total perfection falls on restaurant owners.
A constant refrain, some would say mantra, during my courses on dining is: show respect to people in hospitality. The importance of this respect was reinforced just last month, during a stay at my son’s Ottawa home. The kitchen was under renovation and every morning the contractors arrived with hot coffee for all. We would stand around and chat until the work got underway. Towards the end of my visit and after several days of watching the kitchen take shape, I was intrigued to learn that before his renovation business, one of the senior partners had owned a banquet hall in Quebec. He was a professional chef and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, Paris. Wow!
Here was a man with extraordinary attention to detail, a fine sense of craftsmanship, conscientious to a fault, and obviously the skills to manage and organize his construction team — I had to ask — why did he throw in the towel?
“No actually,” he said, “it was my apron. I threw it out the window!” He simply got tired of all the rude customers, their imperiousness and the endless demands on his staff. (Privately, I couldn’t help but think that impassioned homeowners are probably more inclined to make unreasonable demands than people dining out!)
Unquestionably, the customer has a right to certain expectations. Take for example, the experiences of a forty-something woman we’ll call Cindy. New to the slightest touch of grey, she was encouraged to stretch her hair-care budget and book an appointment for colour and a cut at the salon favoured by younger colleagues. Things did not go well. Cindy paid her bill and silently cursed herself for overspending — poor coverage of her grey. And then things got worse. As she tried to blow her hair dry the next morning, it was pretty obvious she’d had a bad cut. Cindy was furious.
Apparently, the referring colleagues convinced her to call the salon. The owner immediately offered to provide a refund — or correct both the colour and cut.
So back Cindy went, to give them another chance. No charge, of course. As luck would have it, disaster struck again. This time, the colour coverage was fine but the result was abysmally dark. Oh no! Cindy left in tears and by the time she got home, could barely contain herself. I guess she had worked herself up into such a rage that she called the salon back demanding they see her immediately. And again she went back.
This time, miraculously, all went well. Perfect. Gorgeous, in fact. But the tale doesn’t end here because about six weeks later, it was time for a touch-up. Cindy called the salon and was declined an appointment. “Too much stress,” said the owner. “Thank you and good-bye.” Not my business but personally, if I had an unhappy client, right or wrong, I’d do everything in my power to regain the highest level of customer confidence. Imagine the benefits of a satisfied Cindy happily broadcasting her enthusiasm. Chacun à son gout.
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