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Vegie Bar Melbourne – Lessons in Customer Service from Australia’s Worst Restaurant

April 7th, 2012 · No Comments · Ideas

Big Ideas:

  • Effectively dealing with complaints can be a great marketing opportunity.
  • Negative experiences spread much more than positive ones.
  • Create an effective procedure to make customers happy, it costs much less than what you have to potentially lose.

Vegie Bar Melbourne

Vegie Bar, Melbourne

Note from John: This is not a restaurant review. I am providing the background information to offer some lessons in customer service. I generally don’t waste time dwelling on low quality service, I prefer to write about positive experiences. I am starting a new series called The Art of Business, where I will celebrate great businesses around the world. Until then, I think there are some good lessons to learn from my visit to Vegie Bar.

Vegie Bar looks like a great restaurant from the outside. It is a very busy place in the trendy Fitzroy district of Melbourne, Australia.

Unfortunately, the food and service didn’t match our expectations. The first warning sign should have been the inability of our server to recommend anything from the menu. When going to a new restaurant, I generally ask the staff to recommend something that is a “must try” item. Our server, said she didn’t know but could recommend something “popular.” Two dishes she suggested were the lentil burger and the grilled mushroom with quinoa. I asked her if these are “amazing dishes with great flavour.” She again said she didn’t know but said they were popular. Not exactly an inspiring introduction to the restaurant.

I thought the idea of beet root on a lentil burger was good, unfortunately the curry sauce drowned out the flavour of everything. I wish I could have tasted the burger, because it’s probably good on it’s own. The worst part was the bun which was definitely stale. It was inedible and certainly was more than a couple of days old.

My wife’s dish was okay, but again the key ingredient of the dish, grilled mushrooms, was drowned out by the pickled olives in the sauce. The food seems to be a big mishmash of trendy ingredients without much thought to how they combine.

I would have ignored the whole experience, but on the way out of the restaurant, our waitress asked us how our meal was. I told her it wasn’t so good, so she suggested we tell the manager because he would help us.

As I was paying the bill, the manager (at least I think he was the manager) didn’t ask, but I mentioned that the food was disappointing.

He inquired why, and I told him that the old bread of the lentil burger crumbled in my hand. His response was, “Yeah, that is a difficult burger to eat.” I clarified that the bread was stale. His response was that I should have mentioned it earlier, he could have done something if I complained in time.

I then told him that none of the servers, bothered to check how our food was. His excuse was that it was a really busy restaurant. I said that I can see how busy it is, while gesturing to show that the restaurant was 80% empty because it was late in the afternoon. The manager, didn’t have a response for that.

He then suggested that the next time we come to the restaurant, we should complain about the food earlier.

To clarify, I had a bad experience that he was not willing to do anything about, and he was asking me to come back again so that I could get another opportunity to complain.

I assured him there wouldn’t be a next time and thanked him for being so helpful.

Again, if the waitress hadn’t asked us to complain to the manager, I wouldn’t have. I would have left and completely ignored the experience. However, after talking to the manager I was incensed. He made me feel stupid and cheated.

What could the restaurant have done better?

Food costs in a restaurant are typically 30% of sales. If Vegie Bar had comped my $10 lentil burger, it would have only been a $3 cost.  Alternatively, they could have offered us a free dessert or coffee at an even lower food cost. Basically, for a dollar or two they could have made a dissatisfied customer into a loyal fan. We would have probably returned the next night as well if the manager made any gesture to rectify the situation.

How do you deal with complaints?

Is the customer always wrong in your view? Do you care what customers think?

People with bad experiences are much more likely to share them that those with positive ones. Finding a way to satisfy unhappy customers is generally not that difficult and rarely costs as much as you can potentially lose. Consider how much money the United Breaks Guitars video has cost United Airlines. The video now has almost 12 million views.

The best defense against bad reviews is a good offense; don’t give mediocre service in the first place. However, there are people that will always complain regardless of what you do. Often, all you need to do is sympathize and acknowledge the problem.

If the manager of Vegie Bar had said, “I’m sorry you had a bad experience, can I get you another entree?”, I probably would have declined because we were finished eating and on the way out of the restaurant anyway. However, that gesture would have meant a lot and would have definitely encouraged me to come back again. Giving us a couple of free coffees, would have definitely cost the restaurant less than a dollar and would probably have encouraged me to leave some positive reviews. Instead, I am writing this post.

The problem with United, is much deeper. I have personally witnessed the disrespect and utter callousness of United Airline’s employees several times. That ingrained attitude comes from a culture of mistrust and abuse right from the top levels of the organization. However, I am sure that a couple of free air tickets to anywhere United flies would have done a lot to appease musician Dave Carroll, at very little cost to the company. Unfortunately, the airline would never trust it’s employees that much to allow them to solve customer problems of that nature.

Does your business have a service or efficiency focus?

Every business talks about how important quality and service are, yet most only really care about the bottom line. The manager at Vegie Bar likely has food and labour cost percentages that dominate his thinking. Sadly, the focus of most businesses is on how to cut back staffing or costs a little more, hoping the customer won’t notice. That is the type of thinking that created offshore call centers, complicated voice mail answering systems and large box stores where you can never seem to find any staff.

What if businesses reversed that idea? Instead saving 10 cents on a business class passenger by cutting an olive from martinis, how about giving a little more to every customer. For example, the cost to give every passenger an ice cream on a discount airline, might be $1. In the aggregate this will be a huge expense, hundreds of dollars on each flight and potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. However, that is an accountant’s mindset. Accountants don’t grow businesses, they manage businesses. You can’t shrink your way to greatness.

What would the marketing benefit and overall customer good will that could be created from just a $1 per person ice cream? I suspect the costs to acquire a new customer for a discount airline would be in the tens of dollars. Instead of having a large marketing budget to acquire new customers, why not spend a little more to make your current customers happy. That word of mouth might just prove to be invaluable. Unexpected positive surprises leave a lasting impression. Give your customers a little more than they expected and you will have all the business you can handle.

It doesn’t have to cost much either.

  • Why not make a sales call a month after the initial purchase to see if everything is okay?
  • How about making a sales call just before the warranty expires to see if the product needs to be repaired?
  • Mail a hand written thank you note after the sale of a major product. Few companies give that personal service anymore.
  • For bloggers, why not email every one who comments on a post to personally thank them?
  • Bulk purchases can make a valuable gift very inexpensive. The value to the customer can be much greater than the cost to the company.

Action Items:

  • Create an effective policy to deal with customer complaints. It doesn’t have to be complex, just make sure that everyone in your organization knows that quality customer service is more than bullshit marketing speak.
  • Set a reasonable budget and let front line employees solve customer problems immediately, without management intervention. In a restaurant, it might be $20. Any server has the ability to give out $20 of product to a dissatisfied customer, without retribution. Management can ask about why there was a complaint and discuss ways to avoid charges like that in the future, but why not give your staff the power to make customers happy? Empowered staff are happier staff.
  •  Instead of trying to minimize costs at any cost, spend some time thinking about the effects of your efficiency efforts on staff morale and customer satisfaction. Allowing some slack in your budget by not look good on today’s income statement, but you will see the results over the longer run.
  • Remember that the product is the marketing. Create amazing products with a great user experience and you don’t need to sell so hard. Apple doesn’t just sell electronics. It has created fantastic experiences from it’s amazing stores with helpful staff, to the beautiful packaging, to the design and ease of use of all it’s products. There is no other electronics company that comes close.

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