The real world is different to a textbook

I almost feel silly writing an article about customer service. It seems obvious to me that every business is aware of how important it is to deliver exceptional customer service. Every business textbook and every piece of business advice mentions exceptional customer service as a core part of any business model.

Why then are there still so many examples of horrific customer service?

My impression is that the textbook theory is often difficult to translate into the real world.

I recently had an experience that I wouldn’t have believed if it didn’t happen to me.

I was engaged by a firm to do a small speaking tour over three cities. The firm utilised motels for the first two cities and they were well setup with breakfast and data projectors and were quite efficient in the way it was all delivered. The tour seemed to be going along quite nicely. At the third city, there was a relatively new café that this firm was using to hold small lunches and have coffee meetings. It seemed like a nice café and they wanted to support a new business. Unfortunately someone forgot to tell the owner that this firm was trying to help him.

From the time we arrived, everything was a problem. The guests were due to arrive at 7am. We arrived at 6.30am to find the business locked up. A few phone calls later we finally managed to get someone there a few minutes before 7am. When we were shown to the courtyard we discovered nowhere that we could project our data projector onto. We asked for a sheet and hastily re-arranged the furniture. A quick request for an extension lead and we had the computer and data projector setup in time before the first guest arrived. It wasn’t perfect but it was workable.

The guests arrived and we sat them around the courtyard. They ordered their breakfast and we were almost ready to start the presentation. They had music piped through the entire café so before I started I asked the owner if he could possibly turn the music off in the courtyard if it was a separate audio zone or if not, could he just turn it down a little. This was the first hint I saw that something was wrong. The owner grunted (which I took as a yes) and rolled his eyes and vaguely agreed.

I started the presentation and I was about 15 minutes into it with an audience hanging off every word I said when the owner came out into the courtyard and asked if everything was OK. We all nodded in agreement but then I made a mistake. I asked if it was possible for the music to be turned down further.

Customer service meltdown!

His rant started. “You people would have to be the rudest people I have ever met. You book out my courtyard and don’t allow any of my regular clients out here [I counted two other people in the entire café]; you ask for a sheet and an extension lead [when it was booked we asked for these to be setup]; you re-arrange the furniture in my courtyard and now you expect me to turn down the music in my entire café just to suit you. We are not setup to have a presentation here and I can’t believe the hide of you to book a presentation in my café. If you have a good hard look at yourselves, you will agree that your behaviour has been incredibly rude [as opposed to his very polite behaviour].” The comments in brackets were my thoughts but I was too scared to utter them. You can imagine the people in the audience at this stage had their jaws on the ground. To make it even more embarrassing for the people in the audience, they were all locals and this reflected very poorly on their local business community.

After having had his say and discharged this burden he had been carrying around for the last 30 minutes, he turned, with great pride, to walk off. I was still in shock at his behaviour so I probably wasn’t thinking straight when I asked, “So I can assume that was a NO to turning the music down?” You can probably guess that his reply contained one or two words mixed in with the expletives and it was at about this time I started fearing for my safety. Luckily for me he was satisfied with his display and stormed out the door.

Now I fully understand if you don’t believe this story because we all went silent for about 10 seconds as were all in complete shock. I regathered my composure, announced to the audience that I would apparently have to speak louder to overcome the music and continued on my merry way.

Sure, the owner here might have had a bad sleep or received some bad news but there is no excuse for customer service at this level. To blame the organiser of this meeting for daring to consider their establishment for a business meeting is terrible. As you can imagine, every single person at that meeting vowed never to return to that café and I am certain this story has been told umpteen times in the local community.

At very worst the owner could have expressed his disappointment after the meeting was concluded but better still he could have spoken to the organiser afterwards and asked what he could have setup ready for the next time they wanted to use his café.

Some people are in the wrong jobs and some people just shouldn’t be business owners. I think this go was in both camps and it rates as the absolute worst customer service experience I have ever witnessed. The only silver lining was that in the audience on that day was an insolvency accountant and afterwards he was rubbing his hands together. With customer service that bad, this insolvency expert assumed it wouldn’t be long before he had a new client.

Tell me the worst customer service experience you have ever seen at

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