This just in: chef says my expectations for toast are too high!

My second post (after the one graciously published at The HR Capitalist) was going to be about culture, leadership and business success using Zappos’ approach to customer service as a case study.  But here’s the thing:  once I started thinking about it, I see examples of wretched customer service everywhere I go.  Take this morning, for example.

My husband and I are on vacation celebrating our 27th anniversary and my xxth birthday at our favorite place in the world (after Positano, Italy):  Lake Tahoe.  If you’ve never been here, it’s a must for your bucket list.  I’m looking out the window of my hotel room and see the breathtaking gradations of aqua in the water, the still snow covered mountains rimming the lake – all under a canopy of the bluest blue sky I’ve ever seen.  Inspiring.

We went to breakfast at one of the great places the “locals” frequent (we lived here 17 years ago).  We sat on the deck overlooking the lake and watched all the folks streaming in to the area to stake out good spots from which to watch the fireworks this evening.  Our breakfast order was pretty simple.  French toast for me, bananas on the side and the potato/sausage skillet with runny, over easy eggs and sourdough toast (toasted “golden brown”) for my husband. 

The server was a chipper and pleasant gal in her early 20’s.  No problem on the eggs and certainly no problem on the toast.  We were optimistic.  Well, the eggs came hard and the toast wasn’t even toasted.  Just kind of warm.  When my husband asked her to make them right she got all “Miss Thing” on us and tried to convince him that the warm toast really was golden brown and the clearly hard egg yolks really were runny.  He didn’t buy it. 

The eggs came back a second time and they were perfect, but by then the skillet part was cold.  And the toast, well, the toast was burned to a crisp.  When my husband pointed out to the server that the toast was inedible she got really defensive.  At that point he asked to see the manager.  My husband’s a big guy (former Division I football player) and knows that he easily intimidates people even when he’s not trying.  So he was not aggressive or demonstrative at all.  In fact, I would have been a lot stronger in my expression of displeasure.  My “Miss Thing” act is pretty convincing.

The manager – actually the chef – came over and was sort of apologetic and offered to buy our breakfasts.  We accepted.  But he ruined the save by becoming defensive and puzzled that we would be less than pleased with the service – after all, the eggs came back the second time as ordered.  And the toast, well, toasters are tough machines to work with and we shouldn’t have such high expectations for toast.  Really?  Our toast options are slightly warm or burned to a crisp?

I know that being a server in a restaurant isn’t easy.  I certainly couldn’t do it.  I’d be dropping plates, breaking glasses and spilling stuff — probably on the customers.  I would be a disaster.  But I think that service businesses of any size should be paying more attention to the cultures of service they’re trying to create and select their staffs with that culture in mind before they start evaluating the skills of applicants.  And then some training around building relationships, exceeding customer expectations and taking a long term view of the customer experience might be helpful.  Clearly none of that was happening here. 

In the broad scale of things, poor service from a small, locally owned restaurant isn’t that big a deal.  Except that we expect  and accept bad service so consistently that when we experience good – or even great – service it shocks us to our boots!  And here’s the thing:  it can’t be that hard!  I know people will and have made observations that no American wants a service job anymore and that the Gen Xers were brought up in such a manner as makes them totally unable to get outside themselves to think about others or take personal responsibility for anything.  I don’t buy either argument.  I think there’s great power in serving.  I think there’s no greater satisfaction than in helping others.  I think that we’ve given up expecting good from our fellow human beings and expect everyone to be selfish, in it only for themselves and unwilling to set self aside for the greater good – especially in the commercial world. 

And that’s why the Zappos’ culture is so noteworthy.  Here’s a CEO, a company culture and employees who exist to rock our world with the best customer service known to humankind.  Think about that.  They’re not in business to sell shoes, apparel or housewares.  They’re in business to provide the best customer service in the world.  Makes me want them to sell cars, homes, travel (Zappos Airlines, anyone?) and everything I buy!  I’ll explore that a little more next week when I get back from vacation.  

In the meantime, do you agree with the chef?  Are my expectations too high?

Here’s hoping your egg yolks are always runny and your toast is always golden brown – if that’s the way you like them!  And Happy Birthday America!



Filed under Business Success, Customer service

14 responses to “This just in: chef says my expectations for toast are too high!

  1. Arlene Miner

    Dear China,
    Your Mom just sent me the link to your blog. Fun reading. About toast…remember howDaddo loved his black and blacker? Well, I learned from Patricia that’s how his mom made it! Steven (Doug’s son) is a waiter at Flemings, I’m going to send the restaurant blog to him. Love to you.

  2. I love your writing voice – it’s the same as your speaking voice, and I love having you here (virtually) in my kitchen with me. (and in my kitchen, and especially for IJ, the toast I serve would be golden and the eggs runny =].)

    People with egos bigger than the organization, regardless of their position, are poison. The sooner we figure this out, and the sooner we help them put things in perspective (or make them go away), the better off we are. And the better our eggs. But we seem terrified to actually do it, and I find that a never-ending source of frustration.

    I’ll be in your neck of the woods the end of this month – shopping? =]

  3. When I was recently out of college, I worked at the Nordstrom Shoe Rack for a summer. I hated a lot about that job, but one thing I loved was the culture of service about the place. Even though we were working the RACK (the bargain bin, essentially) and our commissions were therefore WHACK (it was funnier twenty years ago), we were empowered – nay, ordered – to do everything we possibly could to ensure that all of our customers left happy. We’d take anything back for a full refund, even shoes we knew for a fact had been purchased four years ago (and worn every day since, from the smell of things). A colleague of mine once accepted a half-eaten hot dog that a customer claimed she purchased upstairs from a vendor just outside the department store doors. She refunded the customer two dollars and fifty cents for a hot dog she didn’t even buy from us, and for her trouble became Employee of the Month.

    Some would claim that such acts are folly – who could sustain a business where you refund customers for other people’s hot dogs? – and yet the doors managed to stay open that whole summer I worked there, and even a little while longer.

  4. Glad to see you blogging, China.

  5. And happy birthday to you, Miss Thing! Hope you had a great bday and a fabulous 4th!

  6. Hi China:

    Congrats on your new blog. We spoke a last year regarding customer satisfaction at SHRM and a cool trip you were taking overseas to India I think.

    Anyway, customer expectations or preferences are just that…so if your husband wants his toast served in 4 triangles with butter on 2 and jam on the other 2 that is his preference. So, I think the server/chef should have delivered whatever he wanted correctly and with a smile.

    I do believe we are shocked out of our gourd when we experience great service as it is so few and far between. And like you, when I do experience I must blog about it!

    Good luck in the is great!

    Cathy Missildine-Martin

    • Hi Cathy: I remember our conversatoin well. You missed a gret trip to India. Life changing, really. This year SHRM is taking a delegation to China. I highly recommend it. For the price, the value is extraordinary. Plus you get travel with lots of top notch HR pros and learn together. I’m going to try ordering the 4 triangles, 2 with jam and 2 with peanut butter this morning. Wish me luck!

  7. Toast is tough. Really… I mean you have to TOAST it and all, and maybe do it again if it doesn’t come out right the first time, like before the customer ever sees it.

    My daughter is entering culinary school, and been working in restaurants since high school, getting hard lessons in customer service.

    But the proudest day this mom has had recently was the day she told me she wouldn’t work in a particular restaurant because the manager was rude to her when she went in to eat there. Even 19yo’s can figure out what good customer service is… and maybe I taught her a little something about what a “good job” really is along the way.

    If candidates were to choose their companies based on what they are doing in with customer service, truly investigate the cultures of the companies, and judge them based on attributes more important that “they offered me a job” and “my potential manager seems reasonable” – perhaps some of these businesses that just don’t get it would fall by the wayside.

    Enjoy your vacation, and I look forward to seeing more posts. You’ve always managed to give us something to think about, I have no doubt the blog will be the same.

    • Tammy, I know. Toast is so complex! Sounds like your daughter really gets it. I worry about lots of young women who take “any” job in this economy — even though they know the bossman or bosslady is a jerk. Sounds like some good parenting going on in your house! And thanks for the kind words.

  8. I think your expectations are extremely too high. I mean order something on the menu and you require it to meet what you are use to? You know better China 😉 too often we settle for mediocre service which has set the bar low. So when those who work in hospitality expect a 15% or 20% tip. We need to chang the status quo

    • I do know better, but I’m the eternal optimist! I keep thinking, how would I handle this situation? And then remember that I’d never be a waitress — I’d get fired in the first hour after I dropped a tray of hot food…

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