Friday, December 11, 2009

"I'm not here to make friends!"

#8 on Bruce Buscel's excellent 100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do (Part 1):
Do not interrupt a conversation. For any reason. Especially not to recite specials. Wait for the right moment.

When it comes to working, shopping, commuting... virtually every other public social interaction... I have to deal with strangers and other people I don't necessarily like or want to spend time with. But when I choose to sit down in a restaurant with others, it's almost always a celebration of a friendship. (As lame as that sounds, it's true.) One of the greatest pleasures of a restaurant dining experience is the social cocoon the guests should be allowed to create for themselves during the meal.

The waiter's job is to guarantee a positive experience while remaining as unobtrusive as possible. Please allow the customer to build and maintain intimacy at the table.

A few specifics:
  1. I'm sorry (not really), but I don't want to know your name. I want you to be friendly, civil and efficient, and I'll do my best to be the same.
  2. Please don't interrupt our conversation, unless it is to announce that the restaurant is on fire. If you want to tell us the specials, or ask for our drink orders, just wait a moment and try to make eye contact. If we're talking and we don't look up at you, it's not a good time. Come back in a moment.
  3. Do NOT hunch down at the edge of our table, and certainly don't sit at an empty chair at our table, when taking our order. Cops do that when they're putting the squeeze on a mobster. You don't do that. (Obviously, this rule doesn't apply if you're a cop and the customer is a mobster ripe for squeezing.
  4. No personal greetings on the check. No smiley faces. It feels desperate, a little like begging. Good service begets good tips, not sudden homey warmth at the end of the meal.

My favorite waiters are the ones who do not try to ingratiate themselves over-much. I like those who do their jobs quietly, efficiently, and with class. Those people can be my friends.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Wal-Mart crushes my soul

Here's a brief summary of a recent shopping trip in Glendora, CA.

I needed a scanner to scan some cherished family photographs. Since time was of the essence, I started by driving over to Wal-mart to see if they had any flat-bed scanners in stock. (Spoiler alert: They don't.)

Wal-mart is organized in such a way that you wander the aisles like a child lost in a hedgerow maze, and eventually you forget what you're looking for and instead you find yourself debating whether to buy a miracle remote control that controls absolutely everything in your house. That, and a 2-gallon superjug of hormone-enhanced 2% milk.

Finally, after 30 minutes, you decide you don't need the remote and you don't want to carry the superjug of supermilk. And then suddenly you feel like crying.

So you stand there in the "food" section of Wal-mart, trying not to cry. Why do they have food in Wal-mart anyway? It's depressing. People should only come to Wal-mart for flammable pyjamas and disposable CD-players. Not food!!!

So then your sadness is overtaken by a white-hot, all-consuming consumer-advocate rage that snaps you out of your uber-depression and makes you realize, "I'M IN FUCKING WAL-MART!!!" and you put down the $5.99 DVD of Speed II (because you have standards, after all, and at very least, you must have wide-screen format, even for a Sandra Bullock shit-fest) and walk straight for the door.

On the way out you put your hands in your front pockets in a conspicuous way, hoping the under-paid greeter will suspect you of shop-lifting and stop you, thereby justifying his shitty job for a few more days during this difficult time, poor bastard.

Once outside, you turn your face up into the sunlight and breathe in the fresh air before driving over to Staples to buy yourself a nice HP flat-bed scanner.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Not all customers look like stock-brokers

Opening up the "Where are they now?" files for this one...

Waaaaaaay back in 1992, I was looking to buy a car. Specifically, I wanted to buy a used Mazda Miata. (Stop! You don't know me that well.) My friend Andy decided to accompany me to the local Mazda dealership in Laguna Hills, where there were plenty of pre-owned Miatas waiting for new owners.

Now, Andy and I had both just graduated from college, and we probably looked a little rough around the edges. (What can I say? The ladies were digging the scruffy look.)

So I can understand a bit of skepticism when we strolled onto the lot.

But the salesman who greeted us -- and I use the term loosely, because it was more of an interdiction -- literally asked us, "What do you boys want?" (Not "How can I help you?". Just "What do you boys want?".)

His name was Big Wayne Lemon. I'm not being cute; his business card actually read "Big Wayne Lemon, Sales." Now, I think it takes big brassy ones to go into used car sales with a name like that, so I was inclined to like the guy. I told him I was interested in a Miata.

Big Wayne gave me a slightly closer look and then said, "Have a look around the lot. I'll be inside."

Hm. Kind of a brush-off. But OK, we'll look around and then talk.

The thing is -- and Big Wayne didn't know this yet, and would never know it -- I was ready to buy. I was, how you say, a hot prospect. So after confirming the presence of at least one test-drive-worthy vehicle, I approached Big Wayne inside the dealership.  He was not with another customer; he was talking idly to another sales person. It was a slow day on the lot. I told him I wanted to test-drive one of his cars.

Big Wayne refused me. He said something to the effect that only serious buyers can test-drive the Miatas. I told him I was very serious, that I'm going to buy a Miata. He said no.

I was... amazed. Stunned. Defeated. We left the lot, embarrassed and angry.

Here's the punch-line: A week later I bought a Miata, a sweet candy-apple red number, from a dealership in Woodland Hills. And then about two weeks after that, Andy bought a Miata. A new one! (Yes, I know how it sounds. Stop.)

Andy and I always talked about how much fun it would be to drive our two Miatas onto Big Wayne's lot, horns honking, scruffy hair flying in the breeze. "How you like me now, BIG WAYNE!?"

Alas, we never did it.  :-/

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Service rolls both ways

I think great customer service is the most effective kind of marketing imaginable.

I always get tires, brakes and alignment done at Wheel Works in Walnut Creek. Last week I went in to have a slow leak investigated on the mini-van. After the inspection, they brought me out to the shop to show me the damage and explain in detail what had happened (nail through tire) and show me the significant sidewall damage that meant the tire couldn't be repaired. I appreciated the fact that they took the time to demonstrate the issue, rather than just telling me I needed a new tire.

This week, I took the Civic in because it was pulling to the right. They had the car for 2 hours. They put it up on the rack and inspected the alignment, they road-tested it, and they rotated, balanced and topped off the air in all 4 tires. No charge. They could have charged me for the labor, but they didn't.

I think they recognize that good service breeds loyalty. Damn right. I will continue to bring both cars to Wheel Works as long as their service remains top-notch.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Did she just call me cheap?

Dear Waiter:

When you come to take my payment for the bill at the end of a meal, please do not ask me if I need change. When you do that, what you're really asking is, "Can I keep all of this?" And the only conclusion to be drawn if I say that I need change is that I'm cheap.

The bill is $15.05, and I put down a $20. You ask if I need change. Now I'm thinking, "Well, I was going to leave $3 and pocket a dollar bill and a few quarters for the parking meter. But if I say "Yes, I need some change," and then my fellow guests see me scraping three quarters and a dime off the little plastic tray into my grubby little hands, they'll think I'm so cheap I'd begrudge a hard-working waiter three quarters and a dime! So I'd better just say, "No, keep it."

It's not worth a buck to be considered cheap by my friends.

But then again, your service was so-so, and you just Kobayashi Maru'd me into giving you a 25% tip! Eff that! Bring me my damn change!

I don't care if it's more convenient for you to know in advance. Too bad. Bring my change, and I'll decide how much of a tip to leave in private, in my own good time. You should enjoy the suspense. Every table is like a Christmas tree, and every customer is Santa (or Scrooge).

I bet you can't wait to see what we left you!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Strictly Go Away Pizza

I'm always amazed when some business is willing to sacrifice a long-term relationship with a customer for some small, short-term perceived benefit. Like... saving a few measly bucks.

Case in point: I once ordered a pizza from Strictly To Go Pizza on North Main in Walnut Creek. This is one of those take-and-bake places. I ordered by telephone, then drove over and paid for my pizza. When I got home, I realized they had given me the wrong pie. I typically order something really stinky and good, like garlic and anchovies, or red onion and sausage. This was a "Hawaiian Style" pizza with ham and pineapples. I like those fine, but it's not what I ordered. No problem. Everybody makes mistakes.

So I drove back to Strictly To Go and explained the error. Here's where the fun starts. The woman behind the counter actually laughed and said, "We're not taking that back. You paid for it."

I admit, I was not prepared for this. How could they have any reaction other than, "Gee, I'm sorry we gave you the wrong pie. Let me whip up the pizza you ordered. It'll take 5 minutes."?

After a moment of stunned silence, I came back with, "Wait. You gave me the wrong pizza. I didn't order this."

Another self-satisfied snort. "How do I know?"

Imagine a cartoon thermometer appearing in thin air next to my head, with the red indicator slowly rising. "How do you know what? Do you think I'm lying?"

"I don't know. But we're not taking that pizza back. You paid for it."

"Are you kidding? You gave me the wrong pizza. You should replace it."

"No way. That's your pizza."

"Are you the manager?"


"Awesome. So you're not going to make this right. Do you realize that I'll never come back here, and none of my friends will ever come back here?"

"Heh, I don't care."

"Wow, OK."

And I turned and left, leaving the large, half-baked Hawaiian sitting on the counter.

Of course I wrote a letter of complaint and mailed to the business address. I never got any reply. And of course, I never went back there, and neither have any of my friends. That was about nine years ago. How much pizza is that?

Consider how much it costs that business to find a new customer. And then think about how little real money was saved by refusing to correct their mistake. I'd say about $3, maybe less.

Doesn't anybody do math anymore?

Friday, November 6, 2009

An Excellent Catalog of Don't's

Picture me leaning into my computer screen, nodding and murmuring "Yeah, baby!" about 100 times. Creepy, I know. But that's about how it went as I read Bruce Buschel's excellent 2-part list:
100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do
(Links: Part 1 | Part 2 )

Here are three items, chosen at random (sort of):
  • Do not lead the witness with, “Bottled water or just tap?” Both are fine. Remain neutral.
  • Do not announce your name. No jokes, no flirting, no cuteness.
  • Do not interrupt a conversation. For any reason. Especially not to recite specials. Wait for the right moment.
Awesome. Well done Bruce.