To those of you who read last week’s post and were eagerly anticipating this week’s follow-up about wildebeest, I can only apologise. It’s bitterly disappointing, I know, but you'll have to wait till next week. 

In my defence, there’s a good reason for it.

Something better came up.

If you’ve read my previous post (The Thread that Binds) you’ll know I love TV programmes like Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and The Hotel Inspector. It’s not just about the ghoulish fascination of watching things unravel, or the delicious horror at what goes on behind the scenes in those places you trust (and pay good money) to safely and hygienically prepare decent food for you, or how shocking many of them are at handling customers.

I really enjoy seeing people turn their business around.

It’s a real buzz watching misery turn to joy, and businesses that were on the brink of extinction, and full of unhappy, bickering staff and managers, live up to their full potential.  It's also nice to see people who were very fixed in their opinions admit that, actually, they were making a bad job of things, and that others knew better than they did.

To be honest, you could write the script for most of them – it’s a bit like panto at times – but I’m easily pleased when it comes to this kind of thing, and I like a happy ending.

So I was delighted to discover another programme in the same vein at the weekend.  I can’t remember the title or even the channel - we stumbled on it while rummaging around in the basement floors of the programme guide in that “is there really nothing decent on at this time on a Saturday” kind of way.  But I do know that it was good.

It was the same format as the rest: frustrated owner of failing restaurant calls in successful restaurant owner / business guru to sort out terrible mess.  Nothing new there.  But what was different this time was that the expert, with the co-operation of the owner, wired the joint from top to bottom with secret cameras and mics, to record every last squeak from staff and customers.  And I mean top to bottom. Kitchens, front of house, stores, lobbies, passageways, exterior.  Not a single thing escaped scrutiny. Well, toilets excluded (shudder).

Dirty laundry

Putting aside nagging doubts about the legality of all this - maybe there were prominent signs tipping off the unknowing performers about their legal rights - it made for fascinating viewing.  This really was a classic case of very dirty laundry being aired to a very big public. 

Aggressive arguments between owners, managers and staff within earshot of customers; skiving staff doing sweet nothing, thinking they couldn’t be seen, while others worked their socks off; cringingly inappropriate behaviour from waitresses (ladies, how would you feel if she massaged your boyfriend’s shoulders while you sat there?); a barmaid happily giving her phone number out to customers; managers relentlessly nipping and nagging at staff without offering support or encouragement; and my favourite, the waiter who repeatedly tried to pitch his other job as a stand-up comedian to a guest who he’d heard was a producer - to the point where he and his party left in exasperation after their starter.

Simmer on a low heat

But the biggest eye-openers of the night came from the “overheard” customer conversations. While some were gutsy enough to vent off to staff or managers about poor service, others just simmered furiously and kept their comments between themselves and their partners. It was clear that they were not amused, and even clearer that they would not be coming back - ever.

The show concluded with the big reveal, where the horrified owners were shown the footage, with their staff gathered round.  Predictably (they are human, after all) some were defensive about their behaviour.  But others clearly accepted the need to change.

The big lesson hammered home by the expert was that the customer comes first – always.

Providing such poor customer service that a diner and his group walk out is simply unforgivable (the waiter was sacked, but the restaurant lost a potential customer for life – a good illustration of horses and stable-doors). Getting over-familiar with customers is not good.  Arguments drifting through from the kitchen don’t make for a pleasant evening out.

In short, ruining the customer experience is a very, very, very big no-no.

In that one evening alone, I counted at least a dozen customers who wouldn’t be coming back.

Gone. For good. Never coming back, and probably telling everyone about their experience into the bargain.

Take the lost potential revenue from that one customer, multiplied up over all the future years when they could have been loyally returning; do the same for every member of their party, and for every one of the friends and colleagues they tell about their dismal experience. 

It’s a bit like a “how to throw it all away” version of one of those network-marketing pyramids.

Raw chicken, anyone?

But for me, there are two big lessons on top of the obvious one.

The first is that the restaurant’s Trip Advisor reviews were glowing about its food. Really glowing.  Their product was great, but they might as well have been serving raw chicken as far as the customer experience went (and that showed on Trip Advisor too).

So lesson one: you are only as strong as your weakest link. A poor customer experience can destroy a great product.

The second is that the business owners were largely oblivious to all this until they saw the hidden camera recordings of customers.

That’s rather sobering. Running a business but being completely out of touch with what customers are thinking, or experiencing, and only finding out when they put their jacket on and don’t come back.

But don’t get too comfortable.  Have you taken a look at your own business?

Remember, unlike the restaurant, your business isn’t “wired”.  Do you know what customers are thinking about your business, what their customer experience is, how they see you?

Perhaps this is a good time to rewind a few posts and read “Ask” again.

Well, that’s all for this week. Join me again next week, when we will definitely be talking about wildebeest – and that’s a promise.*

(*subject to change).

By the way, the pedants among you will have noticed that I illustrated this article with a photograph of some scupulously clean clothing, on the washing line of an Amish farmstead in Pennsylvania.  The thought of shooting dirty laundry doesn't really appeal.