Friday, March 25, 2011

Customer Service Is Everything

When what you have to offer isn't that much different from what everybody else has, what can you add to the experience to bring customers to your door?

Well, I gave you a big hint already.  It's that word, "experience."

This morning I wanted to snag a sandwich for breakfast on the way to work.  No biggie, right?  Wrong.  Let's look at the options.

Panera.  I love Panera, and I have a favorite location where the guy running the grille greets me by name, the ladies behind the counter know my name, and it's just a great place to be.  The parking is lousy and it's often almost too busy to be comfortable, but the people running the place put it over the top.  I don't know how they work chit-chat into their time, but they do it.

McDonald's.  McFood is tasty and cheap, half the cost of Panera.  But the people behind the counter don't know me and don't have time for banter.  Tasty and cheap brings me back but if my accounts are even a little flush, McDonald's is almost automatically vetoed.

IHOP.  It's pretty darned expensive and I don't usually opt for the International House of Pancakes but sometimes I'll pony up for it because the service at my preferred location is top-notch.  After an absence of over a year, we came back and the waiter recognized us.  Not bad.

These used to be my only choices for breakfast out, except on Sundays when I might go to Shoney's.  What can I say, the buffet is quite the draw.  And Etta, our favorite waitress, knows us on sight and sends us to our favorite table.

See a theme here?  The service makes a lot of other stuff worthwhile.  I'll tolerate the cramped parking or a wait in line, because the rapport with the people is so good.

So when we heard Subway was starting a breakfast menu, Sweetie and I had to give it a try.  On our way to work - we share a ride, carpooling is just smart economy - there's a Subway and we stopped in.

First time the wait was pretty long.  I wouldn't have minded the wait but we were the only ones there.  It took ten minutes to get our sandwiches, in that time I could've walked to the McDonald's on the far side of the parking lot, ordered some breakfast, and gotten back before my Subway order was ready.

We stayed away for a while.  The second time we tried the Subway breakfast, we got there at 7:20a.  The posted opening time is 7:00a; the guy unlocked the door for us, turned on the lights, and spent another ten minutes getting things unpacked before he could take our order.

We stayed away for a while - about a year this time.  This morning, we walked in at about 7:25a.

"Be with you in a minute."  The girl behind the counter was scratching idly at her chin, tapping keys on the keyboard.  She didn't look up at us.  Inside my head, I wondered why it was so difficult to have this shop ready for business at the crack of 7:00a.  All the compute work should be done, all the unpacking should be done.  By 7:00a, you've done your housekeeping, now make yourself available for customers.  We waited exactly sixty seconds.  She didn't look up from the computer, just kept tapping.

We left.

This bodes not well for this particular Subway.  But there's a branch not too far from our offices, so we decided to give it one last try as the clock wound closer and closer to You're Late.  We walked in at the North Knoxville Subway and were greeted by Mike.

"Morning, folks.  Looking for some breakfast?"  Already, with the door not even shut behind us yet, we were having a better visit here than the previous branch.

"Yup.  We each want a breakfast sandwich."

"That's what I'm here for."  And he paused briefly to wash his hands, then pulled on food handling gloves, and started pulling ingredients.  While he was at that, another guy - also Mike - came around the corner.

"Hey, haven't seen you here in a while."  I recognized him - I don't think he'd ever worn a name badge before - he's usually the guy doing a fast one-man sandwich tornado for the lunch crowd.

"Been busy.  Tried to get breakfast at the other location, not going to do that again."

"Swing on by here, then.  If you're money's good, then so's the food."  Bingo, rapport.  Banter, recognition, service.  It's not that hard to do.  In under five minutes we had our sandwiches, were paid up and on our way out the door.

My money's good.  The sandwich was good.  It's not the food that keeps me as a customer, though that is part of it.  But anybody can make decent food with little difficulty.  It's the experience, the smile, the understanding that everybody wants a smile and a howdy and at least the impression of attention, of consideration.  Mike and Mike were excellent hosts in the brief span they had with us this morning, so I'll definitely be back.

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