If you have been reading my columns for a while, you know that I compete in dog obedience trials with my wonderful black lab, Sophie. As part of these competitions, we travel all over to compete before different judges. Most recently, we were at a venue in Charleston, S.C.
During last week’s trial in Charleston, Sophie did a great job, but the trainer was marginal, at best. One night during this event, all the Tallahassee dog trainers and some of their family went to this very special, long-established restaurant on Johns Island. The local folks raved so much about this restaurant that we just had to take their strong recommendations.
When we got there around 6:30, I noticed there were at least 200 folks just standing in line. Little did I know at the time that they were standing in line just to place their orders and pay.
Once I realized that you ordered your meal and paid before sitting down to your dinner, I asked several veteran customers how long it would take us to get through the line. They said it would be at least an hour to an hour and half, but that it was worth the wait.
As I stood outside in the chilly evening wishing I was warm inside the restaurant, I had a chance to observe the way orders were processed. They had one very hard-working man taking all of the orders, accepting payment and bartending as well. Between meal orders, he would fill drink orders and keep the beer coolers stocked.
He was working as fast and as hard as he could, but there was no way he could keep up with the sheer volume of customers.
Despite his best efforts, the bottleneck was slowing down the entire process and keeping the line backed up.
Excluding this one employee who was surprisingly cheerful despite the workload, the customer service at this restaurant was horrendous, at best. They had no greeters, no kind words about our wait. They were just not customer-driven at all.
If you ordered oysters, they dumped your portion in a pile on the table in front of you using a large shovel. The tables themselves were slabs of rugged plywood with a hole in the middle to capture both garbage and discarded oyster shells.
Based on my experience, I could not help but wonder why a restaurant like this with such bad customer service would have such a strong following. When I asked several people in line why they were willing to tolerate the long wait, poor customer service and no wait staff, every one of them said the food made it worthwhile. I, too, found the food very fresh and tasty, but for me, it was not enough to make up for the lack of customer service.
I know this restaurant is successful because it serves very good seafood at reasonable prices in a very unique atmosphere. Patrons are willing to trade off poor customer service for the quality of the food. They told me as much again and again as I surveyed them while waiting in line to order and pay for over an hour and a half.
In the case of this restaurant, the food quality and value clearly trumped customer service. Customers were willing to make this concession because, to them, the tradeoff was worth it.
Now, I am not making an argument for poor customer service. The only point I am making is that sometimes -- but very infrequently -- customer service does not have to be very good if there is something extraordinary to make up for its absence. However, I would still prefer to have great customer service along with top quality products or services, and I am certain even this restaurant would do much better if customer service was incorporated into their operational recipe.
Now go out and make sure that you have great customer service. Customer service should be there regardless of what other excellent benefits you provide your customers.
Jerome S. Osteryoung, director of outreach services at the Jim Moran Institute in the College of Business at Florida State University, can be reached at 850-294-7477.