A Customer Service Lesson I Learned from an Italian Restaurant

It was a perfect storm of bad timing. The time was 7:10 pm - my workday lasted longer than I planned. I needed to grab some dinner, pick up my dry cleaning and get a couple of things at the grocery store. Luckily, my wife would be home by 7:45 which was good because the baby sitter was off at 8. So I wasn’t in a rush. I could sit and eat dinner for a few minutes.

Then it happened. My wife texted me to say that her meeting was running very late. There was no way she’d be home by 8. And she asked me to bring home some dinner for her wherever I ended up going. There was no way I’d be able to get that all done and be home by 8. I quickly formulated a plan.

There was a nice Italian restaurant in the same strip mall as the dry cleaner and the grocery store. But I knew it would take a while for the restaurant to prepare the meals so I decided to put my order in first, run my errands, and then get back to the restaurant in time for the dinners to be ready. It was a great way to save time and would allow me to sit down in the restaurant to enjoy my meal, at least for a few minutes.

I got to the restaurant at 7:20. There was a menu hanging outside so I spent a couple of minutes reviewing it and decided what I would order for myself (chicken marsala) and what I would take home for my wife (chicken alfredo). I went inside to the host and explained my plan.

“I’d like to put an order in for 2 dinners. Then I need to run a couple of errands in the shopping center. I’ll be back to eat one of the dinners and take the other home for my wife." I was proud that I was able to come up with such a good plan in such a short amount of time.

“I’m sorry, sir. We can’t place an order unless you’re seated in the restaurant."

Time momentarily stood still while I processed what he was telling me. I had this plan perfectly figured out and now some policy was going to prevent me from fulfilling it? “But I’ll be very quick. Like 10 minutes at the most.", I explained. “I’m sorry sir. They won’t let me put an order in unless you’re at a table."

I quickly thanked him and left - and he smiled and waved goodbye. Luckily there was a Chinese restaurant next door. Interestingly, they had no problem letting me place my order and leave, just to come back a few minutes later to pick it up.

I wasn’t particularly in the mood for Chinese (nor was my wife, as I found out later). But that didn’t matter. They provided a service that met my needs at that time - so I gladly gave them my money.

And that’s exactly where my mind went after I left the Italian restaurant. I wondered what their decision process was for determining that policy. Did they have a big problem with people placing phony orders? If not, then they had a policy in place that cost them actual cash.

As I left the Chinese restaurant with my food (about 15 minutes later) I saw the host from the restaurant, who was outside. He apologized again for the policy. I smiled and said, “I understand. The Chinese restaurant was happy to accommodate my needs and get my business."

What did I take away from this experience (other than pretty good Chinese)?

1. Customer Service is about finding ways to say Yes. Back when I was a CTO I used to tell my team that most developers would tell clients why they couldn’t do something. Great developers showed their clients how they could do something. Achal Goswami, the COO/Executive Director of Frenchman’s Creek Beach & Country Club (a club famous for their superior customer service) said it best in our recent interview - “I didn’t go to school to say No. I went to school to see how I could solve it.". That is the true essence of great customer service.

2. Policies should help the customer, or at least not hurt them. I can’t imagine a small Italian restaurant in a community strip mall has a big problem with fake orders. More likely, the policy came about as the management thought through different scenarios that would be bad for business. They put policies in place to guard against those from happening. But the Chinese restaurant next door had the opposite policy and, at least in this instance, they won my money. The bottom line is this - don’t create problems just so you can feel good about solving them.

3. Always remember that you’re in business to serve the customer - no matter what. We’ve all heard the adage “The Customer Is Always Right" and we also all know that isn’t always true. It would be wrong for a customer to go into an Italian restaurant and demand sushi. At GroupValet, we believe in trying to help the customer be right. If the request is reasonable, we’ll do everything we can to accommodate it. If it’s an unreasonable request, we’ll do our best to figure out if there’s an alternative solution we can provide. Because without our customers, we’re nothing.

Rather than letting me (and my money) walk out the door, the host could have asked some questions to determine what my needs were. And maybe, just maybe, he could have explained my situation to the manager to see if they could accommodate me and win me as a customer.