Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Knaves' Buffet

Time was--and not all that long ago--you had two choices if you lived in the Tri-Cities and you were craving a Chinese buffet. You could eat swill, presented to you at a wide variety of places posing as Chinese buffets...or you could drive an hour to an entirely different city.

Then Kings Buffet came to town, shortly followed by a Mandarin. At least three of the swill-places closed down immediately, their game up.

Mandarins are pretty much the same, chainwide: good food and lots of it, but they can be a tad pricey. Kings are a notch below, pricewise, and they vary widely in quality. Until today, I would have put the Kitchener location near the top of the list.

Like most people I know, we skip the salad bar at any buffet: bring me right to the mains, baby. Eva had just launched into her second plate when she stopped and extracted a twig from her mushrooms. The damn thing was four inches long.
"I don't think you should be seeing twigs in your food", I said.
"Me, neither."

That wasn't what upset us. Overmuch, anyway. Hey, in the immortal words of Sugarland, " happens." No, it was what happened when Eva sought the attention of the manager.
Our waitress--who was very good--got the manager and explained what Eva had found. Whereupon the manager strode to our table and, without giving Eva a chance to say a word, announced "this is a spice. I'll show you"...and strode away.
He was gone for quite some time.
Eventually he came back with...a clove.

"This is what you have there", he said. "This is what it looks like before it's cooked."
Eva stared at what was in his hand and said "That's a clove." She pointed at the other hand, where her "cooked clove" was, and said "That's not a clove. That's a twig."

Until this point, I think we both would have been happy with a simple, sincere expression of regret and a fresh plate of food. Speaking as someone with extensive customer service experience (it is, after all, my job), I knew better than to expect a direct apology. You never outright apologize for things like this--it's an admission of guilt, and it can come back to bite you in the ass.
But that's not to say you can't express regret. Indeed, you must express regret: your customer is not happy.

But there hadn't been the slightest hint of regret and the outright lie rankled. I mean, come on, we're not stupid. Mushrooms are grown in dirt, and if you're not overly scrupulous about washing your food, you end up with a twig on your plate.

Even I know what a clove looks like. To try and pull something like that over on Eva--Eva, my wife, whose knowledge of food and cooking is encyclopaedic--is really beyond the pale. Nevertheless, he tried to say again that the twig she found in her mushrooms was, in fact, a clove.

No "sorry this happened". No nothing. Still, rather than cause a real uproar and interrupt other diners' enjoyment of their twigs, we chose to wait and see if they'd quietly offer some sort of discount on the meal.

No dice. We were charged full price. Eva summoned the manager, a different manager this time, and explained once again what she had found in her food, and more importantly, what she was told she had found in her food.

"What would you like me to do?" the manager asked. Internally, I was running this confrontation through on both sides, and I reluctantly gave the man a point. "What would you like me to do?" is exactly the right question to ask in a situation like this. It shows you're listening, and you're ready to assist in solving the problem in any reasonable manner, and also allows the customer to state what's reasonable. You'd be surprised how many people choke up when the ball's thrown back in their court.

Incidentally, from the other side o
"Well, I don't understand why I should have to pay for a meal I didn't get to eat", said Eva.
"How much did you eat?" asked the manager, and I subtracted the point I'd awarded earlier and assessed him a ten point penalty. Wrong question, buddy, I said silently. You just made it look like you don't care about your customers, only about maximizing any profit you can out of this regrettable incident. I thought about speaking up on this point, but held my tongue.
"One plate", said Eva, in a tone that suggested there better not be any further questions.
"What if I subtracted your dinner from the bill, would that make you happy?"
"It would make me happier," said Eva, "but I think you should know we won't be coming back."
I was left to pay the amended total. I made sure to add a tip for our waitress, who had nothing to do with this, and the manager noticed and said "thank you for your understanding."
"I don't understand much of anything," I said, "but I do know this wasn't the waitress' fault." And I left...never to return.


Rocketstar said...

A twig, that is a new one.

I've seen too many of those hidden video shows showing horrible cook behavior at restaurants with food which is why I NEVER send food back, ever.

Jenn'fer said...

I've never seen a customer service book that was based on trying to convince a customer theat s/he is wrong! How's this for a title: "The customer is always wrong... make sure to tell them to their face!"

Rocket - I've seen those vile behaviors in person! My first job as a 16 year old was at McDonalds.... and there were days when my coworker buddies told me to only drink the rootbeer, because they had done something disgusting while refilling all the other soft drink concentrate containers. I listened to them on those days. I don't send food back either.

I also learned the best cutomer service phrase ever: "I'm sorry you are not pleased with your meal, how would you like me to correct the situation?" 8 times out of 10, customers just said they wanted to make someone aware (no cost), another 1 wanted a replacement item, or a coupon for a future visit (low Cost). Only one out of 100 demanded something more than the replacement value of the item (coupons for 5 meals in the future) or put up a big stink. And in that case, if I couldn't make them happy, I figured they were just one of those customers that's never going to be happy. Meh - loss of future revenue... but not a huge loss.