To “run amok” is a highly descriptive phrase for being “mad with uncontrollable rage” according to Wikipedia. It is a Malay term, and in my years in Indonesia, I actually saw one or two videos or newsclips of someone literally running amok in town squares or gatherings in relatively remote locations — it can be quite deadly. Amok is one of my favorite words, literally and figuratively. But amusingly, as I googled with haste, I actually typed in “a mok” and the slang definition of a “mok” in the “Urban Dictionary” was cause for a huge chuckle — “a person with an exceptional(sic) large penis”. That last tidbit is completely unrelated to today’s topic, I was just amused by the twists and turns that language can take us on… :)
I too, am in the service business, with three (and soon to be five) restaurant outlets and a special events space as well as a retail location at the Cebu airport. We serve several hundred customers daily, and there are so many opportunities for service to go wrong… and occasionally it does go very, very wrong. While we are happy with much of the feedback we get from clients, we pay the closest attention to correcting service issues whenever possible. I strongly believe that if clients don’t bother to complain, then we, the company, have lost an opportunity to improve our own operations. With close to 100 employees, and new ones joining us as we expand, this task seems to be a daunting one, but surprisingly, I think we are gaining some ground and service and service recovery is improving. We aren’t where we want to be yet, so I am on the constant lookout for learning encounters and take note of what I would do differently to avoid the same outrageous service situation I just experienced a few hours ago. This afternoon was a doozy, and I hope that outlining what went wrong,from my personal perspective, and what could have been done about it will help both our own service delivery as well as those of other service related companies around the country.
I had recently read about this kitchen supplies store in a magazine while sitting in a dentist’s waiting room. I took note of their address and telephone number. I looked them up on the internet and the address was the same as I had noted from the article. The telephone numbers were identical. The map on their website led to the address I had noted. There was no other notice that the store had closed, moved, transferred, etc. In other words, as of early this afternoon, on the company’s own website, the data was as I describe it. And I took screenshots just now to prove it. But I won’t even bother to mask the company’s identity and post the screenshots, the company is not the point of this post, it’s the customer service issues. Having said that, the company has been in business for several decades, so I am not talking about a small mom and pop operation, and one would expect at least a minimum degree of professionalism in the way they do business. I asked an assistant to call the company to ask for directions to their store, but the number he dialed just kept on ringing. So we decided to drive over anyway to check visit their showroom.
We arrived at the address, only to find that the shop had recently closed (perhaps just a few days or weeks beforehand). There were tarps in front announcing that the store had transferred just a few meters down the road. We went to the new location, spotted several tarps announcing the new store and products they carried, but when we parked and got out, a guard told us it wasn’t open yet. The doors were half open and the shelves appeared to be partially stocked. It looked at least close to opening. When I asked for the date it would open, the guard couldn’t answer. So we asked for a telephone or contact number to call to ask, and he provided a new telephone number.
As I sat in the car dialing the new number on my cellphone, I got through and company representative #1 answered and this is the jist of the conversation… not verbatim and loosely translated to English.
Marketman: “I would like to know when the store will open.”
Company Rep #1: “Sir we are located at xxxxxxx.”
Marketman: “Miss, I didn’t ask for your address, I asked when you would open the store.”
Company Rep #1: “Uh, I don’t know.”
Marketman: “Miss, you may not know, but someone else must, can you ask someone who knows?”
Company Rep #1: Disappears for 1-2 minutes, returns and says “We don’t know sir.”
Marketman: “That’s absurd, do you mean to tell me you have no idea when the store will open? Next week? Next month? Next Year? Next millenia? I notice you have already stocked some shelves… I am currently sitting in your parking lot!”
Meanwhile, at the exact same time I am conversing with two company representatives, an SUV drives up, person gets out with his assistant, they walk straight into the store from a side entrance and proceed to browse at the goods on display. They spend a good 10-12 minutes there, and leave just as I am raising a stink outdoors in the parking lot.
Long silence as the Company Rep #1 disappears, and of course Company Rep #2 takes the phone and is completely clueless about what has already been said and transpired so far. Basically, repeat the conversation above, followed by:
Marketman: “It’s a really simple question, when will you open so I can come back then?”
Company Representative #2: “Sir, we don’t know.”
Soon enough, Company Rep #3 takes the phone, again unbriefed about the inane content of the conversation with #1 and #2 so far, and says she is the supervisor, and says something along these lines:
Company Representative #3, Supervisor: “Sir, we will open by September.”
Marketman: “Can you be more specific, does that mean September 1 or September 30 or somewhere in between?”
Company Representative #3: “Sir maybe by September 15″
Marketman: “Maybe? So you are closed? You don’t allow any customers in?”
Company Representative #3: “Yes sir.”
Marketman: “Then why do you appear to have a customer at exactly this moment browsing through your products?”
Company Representative #3: “I will come down and talk to you sir (in the front of the store, in the parking lot)”
More of the same, and basically no firm date for opening. At this point, I pointed out that there were clients let in, so what was the logic to that?
Answers like “existing clients” with appointments are allowed in. Or agents of long-time clients can come in. But retail clients can’t come in. When I asked why they assumed I was a retail client, they shrugged and couldn’t answer. I told them I represented several restaurants, and they couldn’t give a coherent answer why I couldn’t go in. Finally, with my voice raised in amok mode, yet another company representative, now Sales Manager comes out and tries to explain. She can’t give a coherent simple answer either. In fact, in the middle of her muddled explanations, she says “Sir, you may go inside now to look at our products!” How completely absurd is that? I just wanted to know the date it would open, and later an explanation why they didn’t inform clients about the new address, phone, etc. And I pointed out that their website was wrong. And worse, the two business cards they just handed me had the inoperative numbers still on them, not crossed out. Absurd. How such a simple thing could be so mishandled is really a lesson in customer service gone bad.
Sales Manager now says store opening date is mid-October, not September. If this is true and a fact, then why did her subordinate say mid-September?? Manager bold-faced tells me THAT NO CUSTOMERS are allowed in, yet when I point out that there WAS JUST A CUSTOMER IN THE STORE a few minutes before, she claims she didn’t know that. Her own security guards had to acknowledge that that FACT was indeed correct. When I told her to her face that she shouldn’t claim things she can’t back up, she stutters. If there is one thing that sets off my fuse, it’s being told one thing when another is so clearly the case. Why service personnel in general ACTIVELY CHOOSE to alter the TRUTH is beyond me. As a general rule in service situations, LYING is quite easy to catch and if caught, it makes the liar look really particularly silly.
The manager now invites me into the store, as if throwing a fit is enough to break previously prescribed rules that NO CLIENTS are allowed into the store yet. Finally, yet another lady comes out, and is now perhaps head honcho of all previous company reps, and finally she has a good explanation, “we don’t know when we will open as we do not have our business license yet.” Aha! Binggo! Bullseye! Tumpak ang sagot! When I countered why they had clients viewing goods, she lamely explained they were agents of old clients. When I asked if they could order goods, she said they could, using old accounts. When I countered that in theory, you can’t do business in a specific location without a business license in place, she couldn’t respond.
The Key Question
The key issue was simple. When was the store opening? And when they couldn’t answer that, issues just kept veering off on one tangent and another complicating the discussion far more than was necessary.
The Answer or Solution
All of this could have been simply avoided if the following was done, and personally, I will take this as my lesson for my own businesses:
1. When you intend to move your business location, post notices wherever reasonable, on your store, texts to clients, on your website and in notices to clients at the store before you close it. Up until this afternoon, their website still pointed clients to their old address.
2. When you change telephone numbers, leave an answering machine or message to advise clients that your numbers have changed, and that you can be reached at the new numbers. Do the same on your internet webpage. Up until this afternoon, their website still pointed clients to the old telephone number.
3. When you give calling cards out to clients, irate or not, be intelligent enough to cross out the numbers that are no longer functioning, or that you don’t really answer, and write in the new numbers at your new location. As of this afternoon, the two calling cards given to me by the supervisor and the manager STILL HAVE THE WRONG NUMBERS AND WRONG ADDRESSES. Perhaps only their names and email addresses are the same. That to me, is a big, big duh, and I have to avoid that inane situation in our own businesses.
4. When you move address, put a tarp with your new address and telephone numbers. At your new location, if you are NOT YET OPEN TO THE PUBLIC, then post that same message outside your store so that there is no confusion. It would be convenient to clients if you post your opening date, if you know it. Or at least say “Opening Soon”…
5. When people call you on the phone to ask a simple question like “when will you open the new store?” — have an answer. If you don’t know the answer, find out. If you are the boss and you don’t know the answer, why are you the boss? At least give your staff an intelligent response to give clients:
“We will open as soon as we have all our permits in place. We expect that to be mid-September, but can’t be sure. May I have your name and contact number so that I can call you back when we have an official opening date?”
That simple, honest, practical answer would have prevented the loss of a potential client, not to mention the time of five company representatives to deal with an irate Marketman. It is a truthful answer, an understandable answer and it is a pro-active customer service answer.
6. If you admit that you DO NOT HAVE A BUSINESS PERMIT, AND YET YOU ALLOW OLD CLIENTS TO ESSENTIALLY CONDUCT BUSINESS BY PERUSING PRODUCT OFFERINGS ON THE PREMISES AND ALLOW THEM TO PLACE ORDERS USING “OLD INVOICES” then I think you may be violating several laws by your own admission.
7. When you firmly and categorically state thats NO CUSTOMERS can come in, but in the middle of that argument, a customer (whether wholesale or retail, old or new) does indeed walk straight in and views the products on the shelves, then how do you think that will appear to folks who have been told categorically that your showroom is not open and will not open for several months still and who have been told there is no business permit to operate the business? At best it makes the person(s) who stated the policy seem uninformed, not totally truthful, or unreliable at the least.
8. When you reverse course and tell an irate client that they can now indeed enter the supposedly “STILL CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC” showroom, and you back off all earlier pronouncements and pull the rug out from under your own earlier stated positions and answers, it shows a complete lack of backbone. And an obvious double standard.
9. Finally, act swiftly to correct the situation and nip things in the bud. Tell the truth or as close to the truth without divulging any information that is confidential. Understand truly what the client is raising as an issue. Don’t mouth of service training platitudes like “I respect your position” when you can’t even tell the truth about the simple issue under discussion. Don’t allow the situation to escalate by adding fuel to the fire, adding still more inconsistent answers, false truths, inaccuracies. Do not assume that any customer is beneath your treating them equally with any other of your customers. Understand your actions in a retail business can and often do result in lost sales if the situation is handled poorly. Learn from your mistakes rather than dismissing the situation as an unusual aberration that will simply fade into the horizon.
That was five people and at least three levels of staff that handled my call/question eventually this afternoon. The top 3 levels were face to face with answers so varied, so inaccurate, so unreliable, so inconsistent, so unsupportable, and finally thrown to the wind and reversed when faced with an inability to logically explain their earlier positions… Gosh, that’s something I would go ballistic with if that happened in our own company.
The bottom line is this. The company moved locations. They didn’t bother to indicate that move in their website, thus misleading and inconveniencing their clients. They didn’t change their numbers either. They couldn’t articulate a new opening date for up to 2-3 levels below the manager, but MADE-UP opening dates anyway, even though no one could really back them up. They insisted that the store wasn’t open and no one could enter to view goods. They changed that position when it was clear that others did indeed enter the store precisely as they argued it was not allowed. The prohibition against entry was to prevent retail clients from entering. But they had no way of knowing I was a “retail” vs. “wholesale” client. They changed their tune again and said they only let previous wholesale clients in. They admitted they had NO FIRM OPENING DATE as they had NO BUSINESS LICENSE yet and could technically not conduct any business nor make any sales at this new location. They claim that old clients just look, but when pressed, they very clearly verbally admitted they could place orders using “old invoices”. I am not sure that is kosher, but whatever, that’s a government inspectors role to determine, not mine. And finally, after raising a stink, they claim it was now okay for me to look and browse through their warehouse. I declined. I told them that was an absurd change of heart given earlier explanations. And frankly, it was in theory a violation of the law, as the business was not licensed to operate yet and serve customers legally.
In the past year alone, we have purchased millions of pesos in kitchen and restaurant equipment. In the next year or so, that will hopefully grow dramatically. We are indeed very, very small fry and know it. But as a result of this incident and the inability of even the most senior manager to explain the company’s position logically and rationally, we will simply take our business elsewhere. It is the only way I know how to respond to such poor service, and after several levels of management had every opportunity to fix the situation, right on the spot, and didn’t. Thank goodness there are lots of alternative kitchen and restaurant supplies stores out there. Customers need to demand decent service and when they don’t get it, vote with their wallets.
I know some folks think I can make mountains out of molehills. But I continue to subscribe to my motto: “Choose Frustration Over Indifference.” The day people DON’T point out these service issues is the day you CONDONE such outrageous service behavior and in effect ENCOURAGE more of the same. It is also a lost opportunity to improve customer service. I mentioned in a recent post that I thought more and more folks locally seemed to be slipping into a moral and ethical abyss… add to that now a lack of logical, rational, service-oriented capabilities.
This post doesn’t just refer to a situation this afternoon. With a few slight changes, it could apply to a recent situation with another large kitchen supplies store whose staff, when dealing with a huge order for stainless steel products and kitchen equipment, gave answers like “I don’t know the price of that”, “We have no stock of that”, “We don’t know how long it will take to deliver it” and “I am new here, so I shouldn’t be expected to know anything”… One really has to wonder what owners of these businesses consider to be acceptable staff and managerial responses to situations of this sort. Thankfully, in that particular case, the poor service forced me to do a thorough search of alternative stainless steel suppliers, and I found a bigger, more responsive and 10-20% lower cost alternative that manufactured right in Cebu. I have a heightened sensitivity to service issues, but I do not think I am alone in thinking local service levels have just plummeted downwards in recent years…
I know many kitchen professionals out there sometimes drop by this blog. So do cooks, chefs and restaurant buyers. Restaurant and chain owners as well. Do me a favor and please email me with any suggestions of good restaurant and kitchen supply wholesalers that you have found to be reliable and well-priced and that provide sufficient after sales service. Your suggestions will be greatly appreciated. Thank you very much.