A matter of trust

This post is the sixth in a series that will identify 10 different obstacles that have emerged from my analysis of customer satisfaction data. Maybe you will have encountered one or more of these obstacles in your own business? The sixth obstacle is a low-trust service culture.

A low-trust service culture is evidenced by disempowered frontline employees, restrictive policies (especially warranties and returns), and overt skepticism in employees’ approach to problem resolution.

In the fall of 2004 I purchased a to-go order of lasagna from Armando’s, a local Italian restaurant. At home, after eating about one-third of the entrée, I discovered a dead fly in the pasta sauce and quickly lost my appetite. I sealed the remaining lasagna (including the dead fly) in a Ziploc bag and placed it in the refrigerator with plans to return it to the restaurant for a refund.

Within a day or two I stopped by Armando’s with the bag of partially eaten lasagna, shared my story with the employee manning the register, and requested a refund. Instead of demonstrating empathy, the employee suggested that it was not possible for the fly to have originated there, claiming, “We don’t have flies in our kitchen.”

Oh, really?

The implication was that if the fly had not come from his kitchen, then it must have come from mine. Or perhaps I had deliberately planted the fly in order to recoup the $9 cost of the lasagna—although I’d only eaten a portion of it. While he reluctantly agreed to the refund, it was quite obvious that he didn’t trust me or appreciate my feedback.

As I stood at the counter, instead of issuing my refund, the employee accepted another customer’s order, processed the transaction at the register, and then walked over to the oven, removed a pizza, sliced and boxed it, and delivered it to another waiting customer. Only then did he begrudgingly process my refund. It’s as though he was trying to punish me in some perverse way by making me wait a few extra minutes to receive my cash.

After frequenting Armando’s at least monthly for nearly three years, I made a decision that day to never return. And I haven’t.

Since that time, I’ve had two more children and, as a family, we’ve instituted “Family Fun Fridays” which consist of a pizza dinner followed by a movie and popcorn. Due to work schedules and kids’ activities, we miss some Fridays but I estimate that we order about 68 pizzas a year (34 weeks x two pizzas) from competitors of Armando’s: Papa Murphy’s and Anthony’s.

Our average pizza bill is $20 or $680 per year. Since the fall of 2004, we’ve spent about $4,760 on pizzas. If I were to guess, I’d say that Papa Murphy’s has earned about 80% of that total ($3,808) and Anthony’s has received the balance ($952). While these are estimates, I can say with certainty that Armando’s share has been zero.

Armando’s has forfeited its share of $4,760 because an employee exhibited low-trust by questioning the legitimacy of a customer’s feedback and request for a $9 refund.

This is not a unique story. Everyone reading this post has a similar experience to share—perhaps many. The valuable lesson to be learned is this: Be intentional about fostering a high-trust service culture. This commitment should be reflected in the policies of a business and the behavior of its employees.

Will every customer be trustworthy? No. There are unscrupulous customers who will take advantage of liberal return policies and other gestures of high-trust.

But it’s a mistake to scrutinize the motives of 100% of your customers in order to identify the 3% who are trying to take advantage of you. Not only is it a poor use of time and energy, if you offend a customer in the process, it may cost you dearly.

Just look at what it’s costing Armando’s…

Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
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