Less excuses, more execution please…

We had the pleasure to see our old friend Erik Barnes the other night as he passed through Shenzhen for work. We took him to the “other Mexican restaurant” in Shenzhen, which by merit of being the newer and better Mexican restaurant is killing “the original Mexican restaurant” in Shenzhen. To be fair there are two “original Mexican restaurants” one in each major part of town, but if the emptiness we saw last week is any indicator there won’t be two for too long.

Interestingly one factor that isn’t influencing the rise of the new restaurant is customer service. Which is what this post is all about, customer service that is, not the state of Mexican cuisine in South China. Now to be fair I am writing from the perspective of living in China where customer service is at best hit or miss, but I believe the key points here are fairly global just maybe more frequently encountered in countries where the state-owned business mentality squashes the idea of “delighting the customer.”

I haven't got a problem. I've got f___ing problems...Plural.

BTW “delight” is a term overly used in customer service to the point of rendering it meaningless. If you work on internal marketing slash culture change projects please get out a thesaurus and find a more appropriate choice, mmmmkay?

So what happened to spark a blog entry. Well let’s call it the tipping point in observed behavior that led to a spill over of characters onto the blog here. But in essence I asked a question (in Mandarin) to a waitress about the menu who then turned to another waitress and asked her in Mandarin (in front of me) to talk to me because she couldn’t understand me. Ignoring the fact that in the world of customer service this is beyond rude, when we pointed this out to her co-worker who was now talking to us she stammered out a series of excuses about how the other girl was new and didn’t know the menu etc. We didn’t end up getting to make our order for some time after wards. Keep in mind though we didn’t want to file a complaint we actually we wanted to place an order. I didn’t really need an explanation (much less a fictional one) when what I really wanted was to order some chips and 5 kinds of salsa.

This started some story sharing about a common customer service fail, offering an explanation and wasting my (by which I mean any customer’s) time and leaving the issue unresolved. Here are a couple of examples of customer service failure in this same vein. One of which I am borrowing from Erik (sorry if I don’t tell it as well as you Erik!) and one that Willbe and I encountered in Wuhan in January.

Erik’s story takes place in a super market near an apartment he was renting a few years ago in Shanghai. One evening while shopping there he noticed the super market’s sound track was making his routine shopping rather agonizing. The usually banal mix of canto-pop and upbeat Mandarin Hip-Hop was interspersed with a loud and raucous “cluk clunk booom bang grind grind!” every few rotations on the tape. Erik went to complain to shift manager about the music and the dialogue went a little like this:

Erik: “Excuse me maybe you noticed that the speakers are making an ungodly racket every few minutes. Maybe this isn’t what you intended by playing this music.”

Misguided shift manager: “Yes you see when we opened this super market we had this tape and we played it constantly… it is the only one corporate gave to us… it used to sound lovely but now it has begun to wear out… it is possible that somebody accidentally recorded the sound of someone being murdered in another room over the music…” (okay that last one is me, but something like this)

Erik: “It is ruining my shopping experience can we turn it off.”

MSM: “oh, of course, sorry.”

Somehow or another the manager mistook the complaint as a request for information about why things had gone wrong and rather than showing any inclination to something about it waited for Erik to explicitly tell him what he wanted. At the same time he got the chance to go down in the annals of “customer service failure stories to be shared.”

The next case happened in Wuhan at a recently opened 5 star hotel that we had a training workshop in last January. Willbe and I both ordered the Hamburger with fries from room service the night before the workshop after a late arrival since restaurants in Wuhan stop food service at about 8:00 PM. We both got violently ill with food poisoning within 12 hours (me within 6 her within 10) since we had not eaten the same food until that meal it is safe to isolate room service as the cause of my early morning emergency room trip, our projectile vomiting, and diarrhea. Here is the phone call Willbe made to the assistant manager at 6:30 in the morning to get us a cab to the hospital and help identify which hospital would be the best in the area. (this last point is particularly salient in China where there are still issues with hospitals having fake medicines in certain parts of the interior so a good recommendation can be a life or death issue, literally)

Willbe: “My husband has food poisoning from the food you served us during last night’s room service. Do you have any medicine for guests who are have diarrhea and throwing up?”

Assistant Manager: “Are you sure it is our food? Many foreigners are not accustomed to eating food in Wuhan.”

Willbe: “My husband has lived in China more than 8 years and has eaten in Wuhan before without problems, beyond which we ordered the hamburger from here. Do you have any medicine?”

Assitant Manager: “Ah well that must be it, Beef is a ‘hot’ food and your husband probably had a ‘cold’ drink to go with it which is why his stomach hurts. I have been feeling a little uncomfortable myself since last night I ate Kentucky Fried Chicken and had a soda. The mix of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ foods is probably the cause.”

Willbe (flustered): “did you just compare your five start hotel to KFC? I think your missing the point do you have any medicine for your guests?”

AM: “No we don’t have any medicine.”

Willbe: “is there a pharmacy near by?”

AM” “No there isn’t a pharmacy near by. Are you sure this is so severe?”

This goes on for sometime with a mix of blame avoidance and general failure to empathize from the hotel AM. Finally we got them to recommend a hospital and get us a cab. When the managers changed shift the day manager came to the hospital to deliver Willbe her laptop and to check on me while I get an IV to reduce nausea and keep me from throwing up. Willbe had yet to get sick by this time.

When we got back to the hotel we went to pick up congee to eat with my medicine. Willbe upon seeing food in the cafeteria runs upstairs to throw up. Later after finishing a long afternoon of training (yes I am hard core enough to wake up at 3:30 AM puke for four hours, get an IV, pop a few pills, and go in and deliver a long afternoon of training to keep a workshop on track) Willbe’s body finally had enough and proceeded with projectile vomiting in the bathroom. The following is my call down to the Assistant Manager:

Me: “This is Room (something something, I forgot) my wife is very sick and throwing up in the bathroom, it is a very big mess, can you please send a maid to help clean up?”

AM: “Ah, Mr. Dorris about your stomach problem, we are sure that the problem is not our food, but rather since you are not used to food in Wuhan…”

Me: (cutting him off) “Maybe you didn’t understand me, my wife is throwing up in your bathroom, it is a big mess, actually I think she got part of the hall way too, we need a maid. Can you send someone to clean this up?”

Am: “Oh certainly, do you want to move rooms?”

Me: “First send a maid, then let’s figure out if we need to move.”

So what is the point here? As everyone knows doing a hundred things right is often off set by just one mistake. The stories about everything you got right very quickly disappear behind the stories about how that one time things went pear shaped. Spending time to talk about the root or cause can be cathartic at the right time. The right time is never before solving the problem. First solve the problem then seek catharsis with your customers. Let the story be about how you helped save the day not about how you let the problem continue until someone explicitly told you how to solve the problem, possibly twice.

In that same vein it has been a while since I blogged. But I thought I would point that out after I got this post out into the world first…