Oct 18, 2007

How to Get Rid of Those Pesky Customers

by Heather Horrocks

Several years ago there was a TV commercial where (if I remember correctly) the business didn’t have enough phone lines and so customers were getting a busy signal with a soundtrack of: ‘Take your money elsewhere. We don’t want your business.’ Well, I had lunch in that business yesterday. It was surreal.

I went there with four friends. The restaurant was decorated sort of, well, truck stop café, but with waterfront murals interspersed along the walls, and Mexican and fish & chips residing equally on their menu pages. We’d gotten a recommendation from a guy in our neighborhood that the dinner menu was great, especially the steak and shrimp. (First mistake: Walking in the door.)

The fish and chips sounded good to me, with the obligatory coleslaw, but I was confused by the menu. It did announce FISH & CHIPS in large letters on the back of the menu, but then, underneath, it gave the choices of fish (cod or halibut) along with the notice: "All orders come with one side: Fries, Salad, Coleslaw or Tator Tots." Since fish and chips normally already come with chips, I asked the waitress if the two-piece halibut came with fries/chips and she said, "No." (Second mistake: Trusting the waitress to answer accurately.) So I ordered the English Chips at $0.50 extra to make my order fish and chips. Then, for my side, I ordered coleslaw.

When I got my check, I saw I had been charged for both the English chips and the coleslaw. Not a big deal; the coleslaw was only 85 cents. But it was, I felt, based on the menu, an error and I shouldn’t have to pay as it stated I would receive a side (I inferred that the side would be free). I showed my waitress, expecting her to correct the error, who explained that I was in error and the check was correct. Because I felt it was not correct, and because she dismissed me so abruptly, I told her I would like to speak with the manager, as I thought they would make things right (um, that would be my third mistake--and I'll stop counting here because I'm not sure I can count that high). Again, it was only 85 cents. I’m not really that cheap. I promise. But it just felt like one of those darned principle-of-the-thing moments.

An employee came out a few minutes later (he did not introduce himself as the manager, so I’m not sure he was) who proceeded to explain to me again what the waitress had told me: I was wrong and should just pay my 85 cents. Only he was much more aggressive in suggesting I just was too stupid to read what the menu said (no, he didn’t use those words, but it was pretty obvious that was the message. So now I’d been misled, overcharged, and insulted. What great customer service.) Since, the ladies at the table agreed with me that the menu was misleading, I realized I wasn’t going to get anywhere with the guy, so I just suggested that perhaps the menus could be made less confusing; he told me at length how much had been spent on those menus and how they had just been redone.

Okay, a little background here. Back in 1982 when video stores just started opening, I purchased a franchise (Adventureland Video) which I owned for the next five years. Our franchise motto was ‘The Customer is King.’ They might not always be right, but they have to feel like they are right—or they will simply go to one of the many competitors for our business. I went out of my way always to make sure my customers were happy when they left my store. And I just always assume that other business owners feel the same way. And many time, they do.

Now that’s not the end of it. It just got curiouser and curiouser (I know that’s not a word, but it describes the event perfectly). When I told him I felt strongly that I had been misled and he was about to lose a customer over it (that darned principle-of-the-thing moment again), he—to my amazement—replied, "That’s fine. We’ve lost lots of customers."

What? Had I heard right? I had. He really had said that. So I said, "I’m not surprised." And I told him that I would pay the 85 cents, intending (but not repeating) that I would not return. Again, it was only 85 cents and I hadn’t wanted an ugly confrontational scene, which it was beginning to be, so I figured I’d pay, leave, and simply not return.

But now he wouldn’t leave the table!

He continued to explain more reasons why the menu was right and I was wrong. I was actually beginning to shake from adrenaline because it was turning into such an ugly confrontation and he was so insistent and in my face that I was wrong. Again, I said I would pay the 85 cents, and that he didn’t need to explain any more, but for him to please go back to whatever he’d been doing.

Now incredulous, I watched as he ignored me, refused to leave the table, and continued explaining why the menu was correct and I was wrong.

I told him again that I did not need or want to hear any more and I again asked him to leave our table, this time more pointedly. Thank goodness, he did leave the table the second time he was asked.

Whew. Apparently this restaurant’s motto was a little different from my franchise, this one being something like: ‘We’re always right and we don’t care if we lose our customers to our competitors as long as we can prove to them how very right we are before they go."

The other four ladies with me agreed: we will get together for lunch again, but we will choose another restaurant next time. The restaurant lost not one but five customers. Over 85 cents.
I usually leave a generous tip because both my sister and a couple of sons have waited on tables, but I did not leave one on that occasion. I wasn’t the only lady one who didn’t.

Later that day, I called the restaurant to find out the name of the owner, as I decided that the owner might want to know (as I would have wanted to when I owned my business) of the damage their employees were causing. A gruff voice answered and, when asked, told me he was the owner. Something in his attitude, combined with the fact that I called immediately after arriving home and so guessed he’d been there when I asked to see the manager, told me the letter would be wasted on this guy. He not only knew, I suspect he was the origin of the attitude.

So I’ll tell you, instead. If you walk into a restaurant sporting oceanfront murals but still looking like a truck stop café, with Mexican food inside the menu and, on the back, FISH & CHIPS and "All orders come with one side: Fries, Salad, Coleslaw or Tator Tots," you may have just gotten a busy signal. If you listen carefully, you'll hear the soundtrack: "Take your money elsewhere. We don’t want your business."

I’m still amazed that any employee, anywhere, when told they were about to lose a customer, would reply (even if not nonchalantly and arrogantly), "That’s fine. We’ve lost lots of customers." I won’t be surprised to see them go out of business in the next few years.

I’m so glad I don’t have to work somewhere like that. I work here at home, for myself, my family, and my writing career. The employees here (that’d be Me, Myself, and I, of course) are always helpful and always want me to be happy. They almost always know the answers to the questions I ask of them, and the owner doesn’t have a gruff voice and attitude.

I hope you have a wonderful day—and that, if you encounter one of those principle-of-the-thing moments, you can be glad you spoke up, even if it seems ugly at the time. Because if you don’t, you’ll have that regret of I wish I’d said (whatever).


  1. Bravo, Heather, for calling them to account, and double bravo for shaking the dust off your feet and moving on. It will make excellent fodder for a book sometime. Things like that, though, when you write them true to what happened, people think you're going overboard with caricatures.

  2. Isn't it amazing how 'other people' can't seem to get things straight the way we see it? And even defend their wrong view? Unthinkable. Yet the foibles of others can sometimes be like spice to a blah diet. It's nice to get a little adrenelin sometimes, then go on, a little richer for the experience, with a little wider view of life and people, and a whole lot more dedication to our own point of view. If only 'Mormon bashers' knew how much more they strengthen than weaken us.

    (If my son-in-law read this he would laugh at how I can never quite stick to the subject.)

  3. Go Heather!
    It always surprises me when people respond the way your waiter responded. We had something along those lines happen with the AZ Republic. A solicitor had called to renew our subscription. We had been getting 6 papers every Sunday for the coupons...long story...anyway, when all was said and done, we didn't get our Monday paper. We were told that is what we signed up for...it wasn't...the solicitor had lied...but this other person refused to budge. My husband said, "Well, I think I better just cancelour subscription." The other guy said, " I think that's a good idea." For Rude!!! We haven't purchased the paper in 2 years now...we read everything for free on the internet...even get coupons.


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