Sometimes You Only Get One Chance at a First Impression

Have you ever thought about how important your front line employees are?  We all know that everyone pays attention to the C-Suite, but do we pay attention to those people that are actually interacting with customers, or guests, on a regular basis?

A few weeks ago I wrote about a bad customer service experience that was compounded by a bad social media customer experience. Whenever I do this, which hasn’t been too often, I always give an update on the situation regardless if the brand I mentioned takes action or not.

This time it was Outback Steakhouse, and you can read about the details of our visit here. After some support from social media friends, I was contacted by the regional manager through email and was sent a card with some store credit.

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There were a couple of things that stood out. First was that the card was note inside the card was hand written. I think that’s great because it shows that the regional manager actually took the time and effort to write something. It wasn’t some pre-typed and mass produced apology card.

Second, the amount that was given to us as credit covered the amount that we paid. I don’t show all of the credit / voucher cards in the photo, but what was included in the card covered what we paid. That’s also great because it shows that they took the time to actually check our bill and see how much we spent.

It’s very clear that the Outback Steakhouse team is trying their best to make up for the bad experience that we had, and to be fair, I’m appreciating the effort. From what was communicated through email, the team also knows that it is definitely a training issue. And that brings me back to the original question, have you ever thought about how important your front line employees are?

Your front line employees, the ones that interact with your customers the most, are your chance to make a good first impression. And sometimes you only get one shot at it. You won’t be able to prevent all mistakes from happening, but proper training and doing what you can to hire the right people will help.

I’ve been to Outback Steakhouse once in the last 10 years. So for all intents and purposes, this one time can be considered a first time experience. And as you know, it wasn’t a good one. Even though the Outback Steakhouse regional management team has made every effort to try and get me to return, I am still unsure if it’s worth it. I only have this one experience as a reference point, and I’m not sure a free meal is worth the aggravation and frustration of a bad experience. See what I’m getting at?

I applaud the Outback Steakhouse regional management team for trying to make things right. It’s really a good example of customer service done right after something has gone wrong. I just hope they make every effort to improve their service training, and impress on their front line employees the importance of making a good impression.

Brand Lessons From a Bad Customer Service Experience

Update: See how Outback Steakhouse responds to my experience.

Everyone has different experiences when they interact with a brand. I’ve had some great brand experiences in the past and some that have not gone so well. And what I experienced could very well be different from what you’ve experienced. Whatever the case may be, there are always lessons to learn.

Over the weekend my extended family and I decided to go out for dinner, which was most likely a mistake to begin with. With four adults and four children six and under, we knew it was definitely going to be an interesting experience. What we didn’t know was that it was going to be the restaurant we chose that gave us a headache and not the children.

Customer Service, the unsung hero of every brand.
Customer Service, the unsung hero of every brand.

We had gone out to the mall on Saturday to eat and decided to try Outback Steakhouse. It wasn’t our first choice but since they had seating available we figured we’d try it. We were seated at 5:15pm and were able to place our food orders at 5:30pm, requesting that the children’s food and the one small appetizer we ordered to come out first. The kid’s food and the appetizer came in about 15 minutes, and 45 minutes later the adults were still waiting for their entrees to show up.

Throughout the time we were waiting, there were no updates from the wait staff, no checking in to see if we needed anything else. After sitting and watching people that were seated after us get their food and eat, we decided to ask a manager to check on our orders, twice. The first time the manager said it would take six to eight minutes longer, and quite honestly, that was not acceptable. For orders to take six to eight minutes longer to prepare that were ordered an hour ago just did not make any sense.

To make an already long story shorter we ended up getting our food, even though we had to remind them of side orders that were missing two times. And the restaurant did their normal attempt at damage control by removing the cost of the one appetizer and taking 15% off our bill, but only after we had complained about it.

In the meantime though, I sent two tweets to Outback Steakhouse, which went unanswered. In fact, I delayed the writing of this post because I wanted to give the brand a chance to respond. At the time of this writing, which is 2 days later, I still have not received a response. So that brings me to these points:

1. Social media is a great customer service platform

There should be no explanation needed for this, and if you find yourself scratching your head on this one, you have a lot of catching up to do. There are people creating Twitter accounts with the sole purpose to complain to brands that have made them upset, and they are reaching out to brands through social media expecting a response. If brands want to make an experience worse, then I would suggest not responding.

2. You can turn negatives into positives

Bad things are bound to happen, and people will have bad experiences. Brands can work to lessen the number of bad experiences that their customers will have but they will never be eliminated. What brands can do, is work to turn those negative experiences into positives. Advocates are created when a brand goes out of its way to make things right. In my experience, The Home Depot is a brand that was able to do this and for me it will always be one of the best examples of customer service from a social media team.

3. Ignore people at your own risk

Like I mentioned earlier, I delayed writing this post because I wanted to see if Outback would respond to me, and they haven’t. What’s disappointing to me is that they’ve tweeted and responded to other people since then, and have chosen not to respond to me. To be fair, it’s well within their right to respond to whomever they choose. One thing that I’d like to say about that is, if you’re going to be very selective about whom you choose to respond to, it doesn’t endear you to the ones you’ve ignored.

4. People need help when they need help, which might not be when it’s most convenient for you

When I did a search on Outback to see where their corporate headquarters was, I was disappointed to learn that it was in Tampa, Florida. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against Tampa, I was disappointed because you would expect a restaurant chain to be online during the time when their establishments would be most busy. And since I am also on the east coast, it would seem to me that dinner on a Saturday would be a busy time for any restaurant chain. Unfortunately that falls outside the hours of Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. The thing that brands need to understand is that people are going to need help whenever they need it, and that might not be when it’s most convenient for the brand. Setting up an account and a team dedicated to customer service might not be a bad thing.

5. Customer service is the unsung hero of any brand

If I had to guess, a brand’s customer service representative engages with customers more than a brand’s salesperson does. Customer service is responsible for helping to keep your customers loyal, and if it can’t do that, then it’s counterproductive to whatever sales you have. Lastly, your loyal customers can either be your best brand advocates or your worst enemies, your customer service team plays a huge part in that decision.

Customer Service: The Reason Why Big Brands Should Be On Social Media

photo credit: the UMF via photopin cc
photo credit: the UMF via photopin cc

For some reason whenever I talk to people from brands about social media it’s all about how to get the right messaging across to the right audience, or how to prove that social media leads to sales. Rarely do I ever meet someone that talks about how social media plays a part of a brand’s customer service.

In my opinion, too many brands are still trying to chase Oreo’s successful “Dunk In The Dark” tweet. Most of them are failing, horribly. Need proof? Check out the Real-Time Marketing Sucks blog, it’s rather entertaining. You know, even with all of the wild success Oreo achieved online with that tweet back in 2013, it still didn’t push me to run out to the store and buy them. I actually think that awareness marketing works better for startups and smaller brands, because the big brands are already well known. And I also think that marketing from big brands doesn’t do much to get people to leave the brands they already like and love. So the area that big brands can really help their cause on social media is customer service.

Very recently I blogged about the experience I had with my son at a Home Depot Kids Workshop at a location near my home. While the idea was great, the execution wasn’t so great. To voice our disappointment and displeasure with the experience I decided to engage the brand on social media, while my wife chose to email the company to explain what happened. While we received responses from both avenues, the messages were entirely different.

After the Saturday workshop was over, I tweeted both the @HomeDepot and @HomeDepot_Care accounts telling them of the failure of the store location to have any kid’s aprons for the children that attended the workshop. I received a response on Monday from @HomeDepot, but not @HomeDepot_Care, asking me to email them my mailing address so that they could send my son an apron. I found it a little funny that the response didn’t come from @HomeDepot_Care because clearly it’s the customer service account for The Home Depot, but I was just happy to receive any response. And I was happy to see that the social team was going to make up for the store’s mistake.

Since the response came to me on Monday, my assumption is that there isn’t anyone monitoring the accounts over the weekend for mentions. Now I don’t know if that’s true for The Home Depot, but in my opinion, whether or not your brand chooses to provide customer service on social media on the weekends should really be determined by the audience. If you run programs over the weekend, chances are people are going to engage with your brand over the weekend. If you’re a retail shop, chances are the activity will be higher over the weekend because that’s when most people have to time to visit your store.

My wife also received a response from the email she sent to customer service, and that response was in the form of a phone call, which I happened to pick up. The rep from customer service told me something entirely different. While he apologized for the store’s failure to provide kids aprons, he told me that I should go back to the store and ask the manager when the next shipment would come in. I didn’t really like this solution and I asked him if he could just send my son an apron instead. He then told me no, and that the total quantity of aprons is allocated to each store at the beginning of the year, and that only the store would be able to give me the apron. And then I told him that I had be conversing with The Home Depot social team and that they asked for my mailing address so they could send me one. When he heard this he didn’t know what to say because he paused, looking for the right response, and then told me that he would look into it and still recommended that I go back to the store and check for myself.

Now I have to say that this is not what I expect from any customer service department. The mistake wasn’t mine, it was theirs. The customer service team was expecting me, the customer, to go the extra mile because of a mistake by them, the brand. That doesn’t fly. The other thing to note here was the huge disconnect between the customer service team and the social team. For a big brand to connect the two seamlessly is a huge challenge. I recognize that and understand it. But it’s something that big brands need to do if they’re going to provide customer service on social media which I think they all should do.

A kids apron, sunglasses, some DIY projects, and a handwritten note for Derek from The Home Depot Social Team.
A kids apron, sunglasses, some DIY projects, and a handwritten note for Derek from The Home Depot Social Team.

In any event, The Home Depot social team came through, apologizing for the confusion with customer service, and sent Derek a package that included an apron and some other things too. All we wanted was the apron so that Derek could have something to bring to future workshops and a place to hang his pin on. The other extra stuff was nice too, and I’m sure it will keep Derek interested in DIY projects. They also included a hand written note saying that they hope Derek enjoyed the goodies and that they hope we will attend the next scheduled workshop. I thought the hand written note was a really nice touch, and personalized the whole customer service experience.

Social media is the outlet that a lot of people use to voice their frustrations and concerns with brands. Using social media as a way to address customer service issues allows brands to keep their existing customer base. While this might not be as sexy or as glamourous as creating the next advertising campaign to go viral, a good social customer service team will ensure that those customers that are already attracted to the brand stay there. I’m not saying that the customer service team should bend backwards to accommodate unrealistic expectations. Each incident needs to be researched and investigated and handled appropriately. There are definitely people out there that are looking to get whatever they can get for free. But if managed correctly, a good customer service social team can easily help build brand advocates. If customer service is being addressed on social and on other avenues, those teams should be synced up and regularly communicate. Mixed signals from two different customer service teams can lead to a frustrating experience for the customer.

In the end, I will most likely try and take Derek to the next scheduled Home Depot Kids Workshop, but we’ll try out a different store location instead. In the meantime, he’s proud and happy to wear the apron he was given. A big thank you to the @HomeDepot social team and Whitney Curtis!

A happy Derek with his Home Depot apron, pin, and project
A happy Derek with his Home Depot apron, pin, and project

Does Your Customer Service Need an Inspection?

Does your customer service need some more quality control?
Does your customer service need some more quality control? ‘Troop Inspection’ © Pasukaru76
About a year ago I was introduced to this fantastic place to eat called Energy Kitchen. As someone who works out rather regularly and is trying to stay on a good diet, a retaurant serving low calorie, great tasting food is perfect!

All of the times that I went there for lunch last year were positive. I ordered my food, was given a buzzer, sat at a table and waited for my buzzer to go off and then went and picked up my food. When I was done eating my meal (which always tasted great), someone actually came around and took my empty tray and threw out my garbage.

When I returned this year (to the location closest to my office) with some friends I expected the same experience, but it didn’t quite end up that way. From the beginning the whole experience was completely different. Out of our group of four, only one of us was given a buzzer after putting in our orders. The rest of us were told that our names would just be called when the food was ready. After finding a table and waiting about 15 minutes, we realized that we couldn’t hear the person calling out the names. We also noted that nobody could hear the names being called because people were congregating around the area where the food was being given out. I finally heard my name called and received my order, which was incomplete. Along with a salad I had orderd mixed vegetables but was only given cauliflower and was told that the other mixed vegetables weren’t ready yet but that they would be delivered to me at my table when ready. My friend who received the buzzer never saw it go off but instead had her name called, and lastly my other two friends (after waiting 30 minutes) were told to pick something else because what they had ordered had run out.

The restaurant was clearly having a hard time keeping up with the lunch traffic and with their buzzer system not working it made things worse. What also didn’t help was the tone and words chosen by the employee handing out the food orders. Phrases like “Yo what did you order man” and “over there, you get it yourself” weren’t appreciated. To the manager’s credit, he did speak to the employee about how he was talking to customers, but the damage had already been done.

In the end, I never received the other mixed vegetables that I was promised (and actually had paid for), and nothing was really done for my two friends that waited 30 minutes to be told they had to choose something else. The cashier eventually walked over and gave us free brownies, but it would have been better had it come from the manager.

So although my salad tasted great, the service was far from good and memorable for all the wrong reasons. The question that I asked myself immediately afterwards was, “would I go back and endure another horrible service just for the food?” The answer is no, I wouldn’t go back for that.

This is just one example of a negative experience that I had, and it just so happens that it was related to food service. But I’ve heard horror stories from friends too about the nightmares of having products that they’ve purchased serviced. Brands need to make a conscious effort to make customer service just as important as product quality. Let’s face it, products break. The sale doesn’t end after the customer’s initial purchase.

One last comment. Brands are always looking for new advocates. Well what better advocate is there than someone who has purchased your product and has had a great customer experience ever since. I’ll bet that customer would make a great brand advocate.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. How do you value customer experience and product quality?

Customer Service That Would Make Frank Eliason and Brad Shaw Proud

Handshake © thinkpanama
Handshake © thinkpanama
It’s really great to see some brands use social media as a way provide some great customer service. I guess the brands that are afraid of using social as a customer service tool don’t see the positive impact that it can have for their brand. Maybe those brand decision makers are living in the fear of what could possibly go wrong. Well in these recent interactions that I had with Citi and Home Depot, I’ll show you brands that have it down right and how a well-trained social media team can make sure the positives outweigh the negatives.

My interaction with Citi started after I tried to obtain a Home Depot credit card so that I could start a home backup generator project. I applied for the card online and was told that I needed to make a phone call so that Citi could get some more information from me. They told me that they couldn’t give me a decision on the phone and that I would receive a letter in 7 to 10 days with the decision. At that time I kind of figured that I would be rejected and I wasn’t very happy about it. I didn’t understand why I would be rejected so I decided to send a tweet to Home Depot and Citi to ask them that.

To Home Depot and Citi’s credit, I received responses from both of them. Home Depot asked me for my email address and shorty after I received an email from Nicki from the Home Depot social team. After a couple of replies back and forth she told me that she requested to have the Citi representative that handles Home Depot card applications to contact me. It was all that she could do, and that was fine with me. In my opinion, she had already gone above and beyond what she had to.

I also heard back from the Citi social media team as well. After a couple of direct messages on Twitter back and forth, I was asked for my phone number so that I could speak to them directly. When I got the call I was told over the phone that they left my contact information with the department that handles credit applications, and just wanted to make sure that I didn’t think that they had left me hanging. It was a nice move on their part to inform of the status of the situation with a personal touch!

But it didn’t end there. I received a phone call from Citi again, just to make sure everything was taken care of. The representative that I spoke to was Stacy R. and she patiently took the time to listen to what I had to say and advise me of the current situation. To her credit, I did not get the sense that she was trying to end the conversation at any point. She even answered my questions that weren’t even related to the original issue at hand. What really stood out to me was the level of excitement and energy that she had when she spoke about her job and she told me how Frank Eliason did a great job of setting up the program and that she was happy to be a part of the team. I could hear the enthusiasm and excitement in her voice, which left me with a positive impression about the brand.

In the end I did not receive the credit requested to start the project with Home Depot. But the response and attention from Home Depot and Citi made a good impression and have made me a fan and so my hat is off to Frank Eliason and Brad Shaw for setting up two great examples of how social media customer service should be handled. It’s very refreshing to see brands take social media customer service seriously. How has your social media customer service experience been with brands? Do you have any good examples to share, positive or negative?

Why I Will Be Back To Maggiano’s

My family and I have been to Maggiano’s twice since they opened up a location in Hackensack, NJ in the Riverside Square Mall. We had heard good things about the food and wanted to try something new.

The first time we went on a weekday for an early dinner. With a two year old son, we figured the earlier the better and on a weekday we figured it wouldn’t be overcrowded. We still didn’t know if it would be kid friendly, but we decided to try it anyway.

Our first visit was great! We found out that Maggiano’s has a decent kids menu and a pretty sweet pre-fixe deal for adults. For about $40 (for two people) we were able to choose one appetizer, two classic pastas (one for each of us), and one dessert. When you order a classic pasta, you get one free to take home, and it doesn’t have to be the same as the one you originally ordered. We thought that was a pretty sweet deal. We also ordered a flatbread too to try it. We thought the portion sizes were pretty generous, and we couldn’t finish all the food. The service was great, but most importantly Derek enjoyed himself. After that first experience we knew we would be back.

So we tried going back to the same location again, but this time on a Saturday and at a later time. Unfortunately the experience was completely different. We’re not unreasonable people, so we expected it to be crowded, that wasn’t the problem. The food didn’t change so that wasn’t the problem either, it was the service. I was seated at a table of three, and next to us was a table of five, but our tables didn’t seem to matter much to the waiter who spent all of his time with the table of ten. As proof that I wasn’t being unreasonable with my expectations, I heard the table of five next to us complain about the same thing.

At that point I decided to tweet Maggiano’s and let them know and I received a tweet back from them on Monday. I have to give Maggiano’s credit because they did want to make sure that I was taken care of and they immediately wanted to fix the situation. It was refreshing and great to know that they cared enough to respond and make sure that the negative experience wasn’t the last impression that we had about the restaurant. In the next few days I received emails from the Manager, General Manager, and the Maggiano’s Corporate Office and I have to say that I was impressed by their quick response.

While I can’t say that the negative experience would have kept me away from Maggiano’s permanently, I’m not sure if I would have been quick to go back or recommend the restaurant on a weekend. However the attention and response that was initiated from their social media team has encouraged me to go back sooner and is on my list of recommended places to eat when I talk to my friends. The only thing that I would change about the Maggiano’s social strategy is the hours that their Twitter account is active. As a restaurant, when business is busiest at dinner and on weekends, the Twitter account that should be active more than just the stated Monday through Friday from 9-5 hours.

But I tip my hat to the Maggiano’s social media team for their response and their engagement. I’m definitely going to be back there soon to eat with my family. If you haven’t been there yet, you should try it!

Do you have a Maggiano’s experience that you’d like to share? If so, I’d love to hear it.