I believe, in life, we find lessons in the most unusual places… and generally, those places are fairly uncomfortable.
I saw a brilliant opportunity to teach about how to retain customers and clients, even after you’ve messed up somehow—even if they’ve vowed to themselves never to return or do business with you again.
And this lesson came, of course, in an unusual way.
It came to me when my husband and I went out for one birthday dinner and one birthday lunch for him (as an aside: apparently, I should just cook dinner at home for his birthdays from now on. Poor thing seems to attract increasingly traumatic experiences at restaurants during his birthday celebrations).
I’m not going to shield the names or locations of the restaurants—I see no need.
Restaurant Number One – The Birthday Dinner
The first incident was at Texas Roadhouse in Modesto, California. It was a couple days before my husband’s actual birthday, but we were out and about, had gotten hungry, and we had talked about trying it for at least six months. So we decided we would go ahead and do it a few days early.
We walked in, all seemed alright. We were seated within a reasonable amount of time and the environment was fun, inviting, and friendly.
Our waitress took our drink orders and at first, she was incredibly on top of everything. She returned with our drinks fairly quickly, she was friendly and then she promptly took our meal order…
…Annnnd then she disappeared.
We waited. No waitress. No drink refills. Other tables that had been seated after us were now getting their food. After roughly around 45 minutes, I turned to my husband and said, “I think our waitress may have lost our ticket.” My husband agreed, said we would wait ten more minutes for our food to arrive and if not, we would leave.
After an hour of sitting there with no food from the time we placed our food order, our waitress finally came walking up with OUR SALADS. That’s right, folks, it took our waitress an entire hour to bring us two side Caesar salads.
The owner of this franchise location came walking up right after her, apologizing profusely, saying that our ticket did get misplaced somehow (hah), and that they were hauling ass to instantly correct it. He assured us our kids’ meals would be right out (with a two-year-old and an eight-year-old both starving, we were rather irritated by this point), and my husband told him not to worry about it, that we would pay for what we did receive, that it was our first time there, we weren’t impressed and we wouldn’t be back. (That’s my husband, always putting it bluntly.)
The manager again apologized profusely, said we don’t have to pay for anything, but that our food would be done in just a couple of minutes. He told us it was their highest priority to get our food out, and that it was up to us if we’d like to stay or not, but that he’d really like it if we would allow him the opportunity to make it up to us.
Working in a few restaurants in my time and now as a business owner, I felt for the guy. He was REALLY trying and frankly, it obviously wasn’t his fault. So, I calmed my husband and said we would stay and that I appreciated his apology.
They brought out the rest of our food within minutes, the owner told us to check our steaks before he left the table because he wanted to make sure they were perfect for us, and again, apologized profusely and personally checked on us a few more times before we were leaving to ask if we needed anything else.
When we were leaving, we figured he would have taken off the kids’ meals to make it up to us. But he told us not to worry about it, the entire meal was on him.
As this is a fairly nice steakhouse, the meal wasn’t all that cheap. It was incredibly generous for him to comp the entire meal—and it was deeply appreciated. This man went above and beyond to make up the bad service and the negative experience to us. Because of his generosity and the service we received from him personally, we’ll absolutely be returning and I’ll still be encouraging my friends to go there if they ask about it. Had he not done the things he had, we would have never returned and we would have been telling our friends and family not to, either.
He not only retained us as customers (seeing as how we eat out far more than we should, we’re good customers to have), but he also made me so thrilled with his personal attention that I’ll still be spreading good word-of-mouth for him, bringing him more business from others.
This, my friend, is how you save a sale or retain a customer. We’re all human, we all fuck up sometimes, that’s inevitable. It’s the way we handle ourselves after we screw up or our staff screws up that really makes a difference. People are sympathetic as long as they feel cared about. And that’s exactly what that man did for us.
As a side note… we only saw our waitress once after that when she was bringing us our boxes and our check. She said, “Sorry about the wait.” We all know she messed up—it took an hour to bring us two tiny salads. She didn’t say, “I’m so sorry, I messed up.” She took no responsibility.
She didn’t get a tip—and we’re generally excellent tippers (a side-effect of me having worked in several restaurants before). Take responsibility for your actions, admit your faults and apologize sincerely when your human-side comes out to play and you accidentally make a mistake. Trust me, people are much more sympathetic when you own up to your mistake and apologize for it.
Restaurant Number Two – The Birthday Lunch
This past weekend, we went back home to Sonoma County, California, to visit some family and to celebrate the holidays early (we recently moved three hours away and it would be difficult to go home for the actual holidays this year). My grandma decided she would generously take us out to lunch—her treat—as my husband’s birthday/Christmas gift. We decided we would go to BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse in the Coddingtown Mall of Santa Rosa, California.
It started out okay, a 25-minute wait for lunch, not a big deal. We were seated. They took our drink order and brought us drinks fairly quickly and then promptly took our meal order—three medium-rare hamburgers (one was a kid’s meal), one kid’s chicken tenders, some smiley-face fries with one kid’s order and some fruit with the other, and an order of Fettuccine Alfredo. All seemed good… I mean, how long could it take to cook a bunch of stuff they throw in the microwave anyways?
After an hour of waiting for our food and seeing other people get served before us who sat down after us (it was only three adults and two children at our table, not like we had a huge party), we started to get impatient. It had been at least a half-hour since we had even seen our waitress and the restaurant was no longer busy—it had died down significantly. There was no longer anyone waiting to be seated and there were plenty of open tables around, which meant we could easily look around the restaurant—and still hadn’t so much as seen a glimmer from our waitress.
We finally had to ask another waiter where our food was, as we STILL had no food after an hour had passed from the time we had ordered AND our waitress had completely disappeared. The random waiter left to go track our food down and came back about ten minutes later to apologize and said it was cooking… after an hour…
FINALLY, after being AWOL for nearly 45 minutes, our waitress magically appeared with our food. We had only been waiting for close to an hour and 15 minutes by this point—no biggie.
My husband received only a burger (no fries), my son had no smiley-face fries (only regular fries) and my Fettuccine Alfredo was still nowhere to be seen. They delivered my Alfredo about five minutes later, but still had no fries for my husband and the incorrect fries for my kid.
The waitress apologized, told us it wasn’t her fault, that she had been checking on the food every few minutes. She told us that they had just wanted to get SOME food out and that the fries were cooking. I couldn’t help but scoff and reply, “Are you serious right now? It’s been over an hour and you’re trying to tell me some frozen smiley-face fries and some regular fries are STILL cooking? I could have gone to the store, bought the ingredients and made them from scratch by now.”
My husband asked her if we could speak to a manager.
She said, once again, that it wasn’t her fault—although she was missing for 45 minutes—and that she would bring out the manager right away.
Before she departed, my grandma asked her for a glass of water.
Ten minutes later (keep in mind, the restaurant is NOT busy by this point AT ALL… the lunch crowd was all but gone), we still didn’t have our fries and my grandma still had no water. So my husband asked someone else (because we again had no waitress) if, again, we could speak to a manager, because the manager never arrived the first time.
A few minutes later, a manager finally manifested with our fries and apologized. My grandma asked the manager for a glass of water, because it had been 15 minutes, and she STILL didn’t have any. He told us, “Absolutely, I’ll personally take care of it.”
We watched—completely baffled—as he walked around, delivering food to other tables. Another ten minutes passed with no water.
Our waitress came back to the table, asked us how everything was, and my grandma had to reiterate that she would still truly enjoy a nice glass of water. Our waitress disappeared again—another ten minutes or so—and appeared with drink refills and my grandma’s water. Finally.
It took them at least a half-hour just to bring my grandma a glass of water after asking a manager and our waitress twice.
Seriously. I wish I was exaggerating. We could have driven two cities over to get water in that time. Was it special Canadian water? Did they have to apply for a passport? Did they have to boil it first and let it cool down before they could bring it over? For fuck’s sake.
How did they make it all up to us? They took off my husband’s meal and one $5 kid’s meal. $15 worth of food on a $75 check. Thanks, BJ’s!
Anyhoo… needless to say, we will never be returning to a BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse again. And the chances of us spreading some good word-of-mouth or giving them a recommendation are about as likely as us winning the lottery… twice. In a row. As we get struck by lightning.
What Can You Take Away From This?
Two restaurants both screwed up in very similar ways. Yet, we still think happy thoughts when we think of one and will be happy to return for our next birthday or celebration. They not only saved us as customers, but they made it so we’d happily refer others to their establishment. The other business, however… we won’t speak their name in our household. They’ll be the Restaurant That Shall Not Be Named, at the top of our permanent “DO NOT DINE AT” list.
So remember… you can turn any situation around if you show your customers and clients that you DO care about them and that you are actively and genuinely trying to make them happy. No one wants to feel like you don’t care and they’re just a dollar sign. Don’t make that mistake. Good word-of-mouth is instrumental in any businesses’ success.
What is one time you’ve had a negative experience and a business has been able to turn it around for you? Or what’s one time you’ve personally been able to turn a bad situation with one of your clients into a positive one? Let us know in the comments!