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  • Jacqueline Le Sueur

Three seconds is all it takes

I have lived in this area of England on and off for almost 25 years. Whenever I return from my stints in Asia it is always to the rural beauty of Devon. It’s a region of rolling hills and stark moorland, high sea cliffs and golden sandy beaches. There a villages a plenty and market towns here and there, many still with thriving farmer’s markets and weekly livestock sales. There is only one city, home to an exquisite cathedral and one of the country’s best universities. The economy across the county is based on agriculture and service industries, many of the latter serving the region’s vital tourist industry. And it is into this service industry we are going to take a wee wander.

I went for meeting today in a market town I have never been to before. It is a well known and a popular place for locals and visitors alike but for some reason my footsteps or car tyres had never taken me there, until today as I say. It is a beautiful drive from where I live. Easy, along good roads which pass through stunning countryside. It seemed a good omen to be heading off to my meeting under a bright blue sky and in sunshine that bathed me with the first rays of the year that actually held warmth.

I arrived early, in order not to be late but also to give me a while to explore. My expectations were high and I was not disappointed. In an age where shopping areas around the world are horribly homogenised I found a long high street populated on both sides with small, independent local retailers. Signs in the butcher’s shop told me the names of the farms and the farmers where their meat had been sourced – I like that. Shopkeepers were happy to chat even though I told them all I was just browsing. One lady, the owner of a small clothing boutique, asked me if I would be having a coffee before I headed back home. I said yes and happily received her recommendation to a small café just down the street from her shop. She assured me that there were many good places in town but for her this one was the best. So it was there I went after my most enjoyable and productive meeting.

My spirits were high and I was in an exceptionally good mood. I was well ready to be surprised and delighted by this highly recommended eatery. Given what I had been told I was also expecting very good food and excellent service.

I really like it when you stumble across a place to eat that is wonderful in every dimension – the décor suits the offering, the ambiance is good, the music is pleasant and at just the right decibel level, the other patrons are interesting to watch, the menu is neither complex nor the length of a telephone directory, the service is engaging and delivered with a smile, and the food and drink is of unparalleled quality. It’s a big ask to get all that wrapped up in one package but it is possible. How happy was I to unexpectedly find this today? Fantastically so!

I had no intention of ordering dessert, however I have been training revenue enhancement and upselling for years and when it is done well I will rarely, if ever, refuse. It was offered effortlessly this afternoon and the cornucopia of delight lying in wait on the cake stands was so exquisitely executed I couldn’t possibly refuse. So I didn’t and it was a small tart and a double espresso for me.

Once again my expectations with respect to my dessert were exceeded way beyond the norm, so much so that I tweeted out my delight accompanied by a photo of my mouthwatering cake. I used the establishment’s name and hash tagged the town to make it easily searchable and even suggested others visit. Praise given where praise is due, I always say.

My coffee, though, was another matter. It was lukewarm and very bitter. The temperature didn’t concern me, it’s the flavour I am after with an espresso. It was the bitterness that made it undrinkable. I could have asked for another but what would have been the point when the issue was most likely with the beans. I decided that I would rather mention it when I paid my bill. This is such an easy situation to retrieve and with service levels so good I thought it a fair assumption that the server at the till would be empowered to deal with such a matter.

“How was your experience with us today,?” she asked when I approached the till. Mmmm, I like that – how was my ‘experience’, not just the food. At the end of the day it matters not whether it is a meal in a café or a massage in a spa, the measurement of success should always be the guest’s total experience – from first encounter, be that with a website or when they walk through the front door, to when they leave.

“I love the atmosphere you have created in here. Your food is simple, local and very good. I loved my cake! And on top of that you deliver a service that is accompanied by a genuine smile,” I replied.

“Thank you. That is very kind of you,” she said. “We are glad you enjoyed yourself. That will be eleven pounds please.”

I left a small pause before saying, “My espresso was almost cold and very bitter, though.”

“Oh,” the server replied, with eye contact and smile, “I am sorry to hear that. If you had mentioned it earlier I would have been happy to replace it for you.”

Good, good, just the words I was hoping to hear. By this point I was fairly sure I was going to receive the appropriate retrieval – the cost of the coffee removed from the bill. Easy to do, extremely low cost to the business and high impact to me. I waited, giving her the opportunity to offer the service retrieval. When it was not forthcoming I decided to give her a second chance and continued,

“I didn’t bother with that as the temperature was not the main issue. It was the bitterness. That is going to be coming from the beans so there did not seem much point.” Pause, eye contact, friendly smile from me to her. Smile in return. I waited, still sure the retrieval would come.

“I am sorry,” she reiterated. “That will be eleven pounds please.”

I paused once more, my silence embracing the shift of what had been, until this moment and in spite of my bitter coffee, a sales and service encounter of stratospheric success into one of epic failure. A movement that took as long as it took the server to utter, “that will be eleven pounds, please.” for the second time.

Three seconds.

Three seconds, that’s all. In the time it takes to snap your fingers I was lost as a repeat customer. Not only that but I am now telling you, as I have told a couple of my friends this evening. I have also shared this story on the blog of a local business networking group I belong to. My tweet will come later.

This epic fail was created because the server was either not empowered to take the simple retrieval action that was appropriate to the situation, or she had not been trained how to do so. I truly do not believe it was due to a lack of concern on behalf of the café management or team for their customers as this business spoke of care and commitment in every other respect.

Consistently good service across a business, no matter what that business is, requires all team members who interact with customers, both internal and external, to be aware of, and trained in, the behaviours and skills that will allow them to demonstrate the organisation’s mission, vision and values, and to perform their roles with measurable excellence at every juncture. Failure to do so will, eventually, contribute to the failure of the business in one way or another.

I believe it is worthwhile thinking of those three seconds. Do they exist in your business? And if they do, what impact are they having and what are you going to do to address them?

© Jacqueline Le Sueur 2012 All Rights Reserved

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