Customer service is not rocket science

I was down at Fry’s Electronics yesterday — huge electronics warehouse. Geek paradise. Everything from DVD boxed sets to multimeters. Why I was there is unimportant; let’s just say that the connector consipiracy is after me in a big way. This was my second time in Fry’s, Leah’s first.

It took a while to figure out what was the right Monster widget I needed to fix my problem, it was getting into the afternoon and we were getting kind of peckish. “There’s a sandwich shop right here in the store” said Leah. Perfect.

These guys think of everything — you want people to spend all day shopping in your store, you’ve got to feed them. Smart business move.

Or is it? Maybe not.

We go into the sandwich shop, stand in line for a while, order chicken salad for Leah, pastrami, hot, no mustard for me. Sit down at a table.

The line was quite slow, but, whatever. No problem yet.

We wait. And wait. And wait. And wait some more. The place has other customers, but not so many that it should take twenty minutes to put together a couple of sandwiches. I ask the guy who took our order what was up with the sandwiches

“Yeah, they’re coming”.

We now have a problem, obviously, but this problem is merely Vexing. I can live with Vexing.

A couple minutes later, there’s still no sign of Leah’s sandwich, but mine arrives — covered in mustard.

Now we have a more serious problem. Three problems actually: where’s Leah’s sandwich, why is mine covered in mustard, and why is this all taking so long? We have moved from the Vexing category to Boneheaded.

We are now seriously low on blood sugar and getting cranky.

I once more go up to the guy and point out that my sandwich has mustard on it.

I am not making this up: the very first thing out of his mouth is

“That’s not my fault. You saw me write down ‘no mustard’.”

OK, now we have a BIG problem. We have rapidly left Boneheaded far behind and are firmly ensconced into the Fatal problem category. We now have a meta-problem. This guy wants to argue with me about whose fault it is, rather than making me a new sandwich. I am not particularly interested in having that conversation.

“Look, you know what, I could have driven home and made a sandwich in the amount of time we’ve been waiting. Leah’s still hasn’t shown up. Void out the transaction and we’ll just eat at home.”

“I need my manager to void a transaction.”

“You do what you have to do, Zach.”

At this point we start watching the clock with growing interest.

A solid five minutes later, a young woman ambles in, who is apparently the manager. She completely ignores me — she does not speak a single word to me throughout this entire encounter, though she does attempt a feeble, unconvincing justification to Leah on the subject of why it is that a chicken salad takes so long.

She chews out Zach for writing down Leah’s order with no table number.

She then chews out the sandwich makers — who, I gather from her conversation with them, found an order for a chicken salad, made it, discovered that there was no table number written on the order, and therefore stuck it behind the counter and ignored it.

Obviously this belies her earlier ridiculous explanation that chicken salad takes a long time to prepare, but she chooses to ignore this little contradition.

Now, I used to make sandwiches for a living, and let me tell you, even if you have only a few simple sandwich making skills, it’s not that hard to figure out that someone probably wants to eat that sandwich, and that if you don’t know to whom it belongs, it behooves you to find out. I mean, what did they think would be the outcome of hiding it? (If you guessed “they’d give up, go home and blog about it” — you’re right!)

When she’s done chewing out her staff, she admits that actually, she has no idea how to work the cash register and therefore cannot void out the transaction. She needs her manager.

So far, I have encountered zero competent employees, and a considerable number of incompetent employees. We sit back to watch the clock again.

You know those old Star Trek TNG episodes where Picard goes “hostile aliens are loose in the Engineering Room! Riker, Worf, take care of it!” and then instead of, oh, I don’t know, beaming themselves instantaneously into engineering, they kind of walk — briskly — the quarter mile from the bridge to the engine room? My initial conjecture was that things were taking so long because everyone was really, really busy serving other customers. Based on the speed that they actually move, I’m now starting to think that they’re just plain slow.

Anyway, ANOTHER solid five minutes later, the manager’s manager ambles in. This guy attempts to save the day. After he’s brought up to speed by the cashier and the manager, the first thing out of his mouth is “I’m sorry this happened.”

“You know, you’re the first person to say that in the last fifteen minutes.”

“Oh. Well. I’m sorry about that too.”

We are, for the first time, on the right track. Can he pull it off? Tragically, no. He tries to do the right thing, but he screws it up. How he screws it up is interesting. Thus far, every mistake made has been due to total incompetence. Let’s break it down:

First order mistakes: Hide a sandwich when you don’t know whose it is. Put mustard on a sandwich where the order clearly says no mustard. Fail to understand how your own cash register works.

Second order mistkes: When given a customer problem, engage in blame shifting. Argue back to the customer. Ignore the customer’s problem while you concentrate on process. Don’t take responsiblity for your mistakes. Don’t apologize. Don’t do anything to actually SOLVE the PRIMARY problem (two hungry people with a basket full of high margin widgets that they’d like to buy). Call in multiple levels of management to solve a simple sandwich making issue.

These are all ridiculous and obvious mistakes that should be covered in the first day of new employee orientation at a business that so heavily depends on repeat customers.

What was the manager’s final, deal breaking mistake?

“Is there anything we can do to make it up to you?”

This last mistake is subtle. Clearly he meant well and knew what to do — apologize, take responsibility, mollify the customer — but not how to do it.

The problem is that I’ve already told them what I want them to do — I want them to give me a sandwich, and, if they cannot, to give me my money back so that I can stop spending my incredibly busy day with time-wasting idiots.

Engaging in a negotiation with management over what would be an appropriate level of contrition for them to display for the disaster they’ve managed to embroil me in is not how I want to spend another second of my day. We are in this situation BECAUSE I want to stop talking to them.

Figuring out what they can do for me when they screw up is management’s job, not the customer’s job! Thus, I said “Thanks, but I’m just going home.” put down my basket, and left.

Customer service at a sandwich shop is not rocket science. I said in an earlier entry:

My father has been in the restaurant business for many years. Something he taught me at an early age is that one measure of the quality of a restaurant is how few mistakes they make, but a more important measure is how they treat the customer once a mistake has been made. Do they apologize, take responsibility, and immediately act to correct the mistake, or do they engage in cover-ups, blame-shifting and foot-dragging? I don’t go back to the second kind of restaurant.

When that happens to me at a restaurant where the core competency is in serving food, the restarant probably loses tens or hundreds of dollars of business from me. In a restaurant business where the core competency is actually separating technology-loving geeks like me from thousands of dollars at a time, the opportunity cost of making a customer relations disaster out of a sandwich is considerably higher.

Finally, let me make this very clear: though obviously it is fun to vent, that’s not my primary purpose here. I want to call attention to this problem in a public way because Fry’s sells Microsoft products and therefore I want them to succeed. Even if I cannot, in good conscience, ever shop there again, I want other people to have a pleasant shopping experience there, and buy lots of computers and XBox games. If I didn’t want them fixed, I wouldn’t point out the problems.

I’m going to send a link to this to upper management at Fry’s, and I invite them to respond with details of how they’re solving these problems.


Update from 2022: They never responded to my post and went out of business in 2021.

2 thoughts on “Customer service is not rocket science

  1. Pingback: I want toast | Fabulous adventures in coding

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