We Are the Engine of Commerce

happy-customerLast week my husband and I decided to try a local Pollo Tropical for lunch. We had heard from several people that the menu in this fast food chain was exceptionally good. Sadly we never had even a taste of their wares. Instead, we entered the restaurant and almost instantly left before moving past the door. The sight that greeted us was disgusting beyond measure. Dirty dishes and trash were piled high on several of the tables. The floor was littered with trash and crumbs. In other words the place was filthy and nobody appeared to be making any sort of effort to rectify the situation. We both agreed that we were not going to spend our money on food that came from such a disgusting place. We wondered how the kitchen in the back might look if the most visible section of the eatery was in such a state of disarray. Our imaginations painted a dismal picture.

I am admittedly a cleanliness freak. I will lose my appetite in a millisecond if I find a hair in my food or a roach skitters across the floor. I am literally unable to eat in an unsanitary environment. I want to be assured that the people in charge are at least making an effort to keep things as pristine as possible. I like going to the Five Guys burger chain because I can clearly see the folks preparing the food. They wear gloves and somehow manage to keep the area looking pristine while still quickly providing me with a custom designed meal. I will pay extra to go somewhere that has high standards but will drop a place in a New York minute if I see evidence of dirt and grime and I don’t mind informing the management of eateries that their hygiene is unsatisfactory. If they do something to improve I am always willing to try them again but if they ignore my comments then they are quite literally dead to me.

I realize that the employees of most fast food restaurants work for extremely low wages but I do not believe that this fact gives them the excuse to neglect their duties. I used to enjoy dining at a Panera Bread in Pasadena because a young man with disabilities was in charge of cleaning the tables and the floor there. He took great pride in his work and everything was so clean that it sparkled. He was in constant motion around the room picking up stray pieces of paper and reaching under furniture to sweep up even the tiniest crumb. He did so with a big smile on his face and never failed to greet each of the guests as they arrived and wave goodbye as they left. Little wonder that the place was always packed. Their secret weapon was not so much the food as this exceptional young man who was so dedicated to his job.

Those who manage businesses in the service industry sometimes forget that everything that they and their employees do or don’t do contributes to the success or failure of the enterprise. Most people have limited funds and when they choose to spend their hard earned money somewhere they expect to get a good product. Restaurants not only must provide tasty food but need to do so in an atmosphere that inspires confidence that sanitary health standards are continually in place. I simply cannot understand how routines become so lax that nobody appears to be minding the store.

My husband isn’t as concerned about messiness as I am. His pet peeve is being virtually ignored by clerks who are busier discussing working conditions with fellow employees than paying attention to him as he makes purchases. He spent a great deal of his career in the retail banking business and his forte was making customers happy. He insisted on certain standards of behavior from his employees. He strove to keep lines short and interactions happy. He was generally beloved to the people who entrusted their money to him. He carefully chose and trained his workers and began by being respectful to them so that they in turn might be courteous to the people they served.

Unfortunately there are far too many times when clerical people give the impression that they wish that we would just go away and leave them to their conversations. They are surly and inattentive. They behave as though they would rather being doing anything but helping us to make a purchase. Their attitudes do little to encourage us to return in the future. There are too many alternative places that offer the same products but do so with helpful employees for any of us to accept unsatisfactory customer service.

So many stores now offer discounts with coupons. Sometimes its difficult to keep up with all of the paper and other times I don’t even know that it is even available. When I shop in a store where the salesclerk actually helps me to get the best possible deal you can bet that I take note and return again and again. I’ve had delightful people show me where to find the discounts online. Others have split the transaction into multiples in order to provide me with the most savings. I laugh when one of them winks and pulls a coupon from under the counter to help me out. The employees who take the time to go out of their way to be certain that I ultimately get the best possible product for the lowest price are true sales people. They fully understand that it takes effort to keep customers and they are willing to do whatever is needed to make me happy.

We live in a dog eat dog world. To stand out from the ordinary most retail establishments whether they be offering food or goods or services have to be just a bit better than their competition. It takes more than the ordinary to get people to stand in line for barbecue in the Texas heat but there are people who have accomplished that. I watch businesses founder while others thrive. The difference between success and failure almost always can be found in the attitudes of the staff. If they project a caring spirit and a sense of pride in being excellent the customers will invariably notice and reward them with their loyalty. It isn’t that difficult to keep the tables clean in a restaurant or to pay attention to someone who is making a major purchase but those little nuances often go undone even though they really do matter.

They say one unsatisfied customer will ultimately result in the loss of many more. All of us talk with each other. Word spreads like wildfire. I know that I have already mentioned my unfortunate experience with Pollo Tropical to a number of folks. If they tell the people that they know a mini boycott will begin to form. It doesn’t take too many such chain reactions for a business to take a dive. At the same time, a favorable experience leads to word of mouth recommendations that spur growth.

I have learned that most businesses appreciate our comments and generally will attempt to do better if we take the time to alert them to problems. We should also commend the people who provide us with pleasant experiences. Just as those in the service industry should never take us for granted we too have a certain responsibility to keep management informed. We are the engine that drives commerce and we have the power to keep it running smoothly.