Customer Service Lessons from my Poor Olive Garden Experience

I am always on the lookout for lessons to be learned from my own experience as a customer. I believe small business owners can learn a lot about management and customer service by putting themselves in the shoes of customers. I was presented with such an opportunity when we visited Olive Garden restaurant in Auburn Hills, Michigan over the weekend. This was a special treat from my daughters on Father’s Day.
While I have always liked Olive Garden’s delicious food particularly the soups and salad my experience on this day left a lot to be desired from such a reputable national restaurant. Here is what happened:

Upon checking in at the front we were told the table will be ready in 30 minutes. After waiting for nearly 30 minutes my daughter went to inquire and was told to wait for another 10 minutes. Some more wait and another inquiry yielded similar response of even more wait. After nearly 55 minutes of wait we finally got in and found that there was a whole section of the restaurant completely empty. Why in the earth did they not sit us in that area, beats me!
Anyway, the food was ok, but the conversation I had with the manager at the end is what left a bad taste in my mouth (no pun intended). Here is how it went…
Manager: How was your visit?
Me: Not good. I did not expect to have such as bad Father’s Day.
Manager: Why do you say so?
Me: Well, to start with we had to wait more than 55 min to get our table when you had promised only 30 min. The kids wanted the fathers to have a great time and they are very upset.
Manager: Well, I checked the computer and the wait was not 55 min. You only waited for 31 min.
Me: Huh!! [Long pause] There was a whole section that we found empty.
Manager: Yeh!!
Me: Yeh? [Another long pause]
Manager: I could not sit you there. We are short staffed.
Me: That’s your problem to manage. And I am really ticked off by your attitude and the way you are responding.
Manager: Well, I am sorry if you feel that way. And if you want I can give you a voucher for discount next time.
Me: If I want? It’s not about the voucher. It’s about how you are treating your customer who is upset with your service and attitude.
And we left it at that because any further conversation would have brought the worst out of me and I would have made a big hoopla in front of other customers. The tone of the manager during the entire conversation didn’t feel apologetic at all. In fact, it was completely unabashed. Afterwards, I thought about the whole conversation and what small business owners can learn from it. Here are my thoughts.

  • Never get in the “he said, she said” arguments with customers. It’s a losing proposition. I had discussed why small business owners need a poker face for this reason. You may “win” that round of arguments, but you will “lose” war by alienating that customer forever. In this case the manager could have said sorry for such a long wait rather than pointing to the computer record, which I know was not true anyway.
  • Under promise and over deliver. If you think it will be a 55 minutes wait tell them it will be an hour. The thing that irritates most customers is to have to ask several times repeatedly while they are trying to placate the hungry, noisy kids.
  • When you sense that customer is not happy, delight him with a surprise. Can you imagine what my reaction could have been if she had said – “Sorry, here is the gift card you can use for your next visit for all the issues you had to face today” rather than asking “if I wanted a gift card.”
  • Finally, whenever customer shows dissatisfaction start the conversation with sincere apology. This goes a long way toward calming the customer down when things have not gone right for him. Follow the apology by asking “What can I do to make you happy? I know, I cannot go back and change things in the past, but I want to make up for our mistakes, while making sure it will not happen again in the future.” Just imagine the reaction you will get from customer upon hearing that.

Anyway, needless to say Olive Garden has lost me as a customer forever. Just make sure you don’t end up in a similar situation with your customers.
What is your opinion? Any other tips to offer to Olive Garden manager and fellow small business owners?