Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Another Ode to Customer Service

Last week was my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Neither mom nor dad is a fan for big parties, so my sister and I opted, instead, to give them a big gift and a small family dinner at a favorite restaurant to celebrate.

Being very particular, mom and dad have their limited list of fav restaurants. Our first choice was a seafood spot they adore. Mid-market in price, the Maine Fish Market isn't (as my dad would say) "fancy", but the seafood is among the best in Connecticut. The caveat? They don't take reservations. Being in PR and having been a business editor for more than a decade, I scoffed: for a 50th anniversary dinner in honor of loyal customers, AND a party of 10 (including my almost 103-year-old aunt), they would surely make an exception and not make us sit in the bar for 2 hours on a Friday night! So, I called. My answer: "sorry, no reservations." I explained again. The response: "Nope."

My head ready to explode, I tried mom and dad's other favorite: a fabulous Italian spot in Hartford's South End: the First and Last, an independent that has been around since the 1930s. Like the Maine Fish Market, First and Last doesn't ordinarily take reservations. However, I told their lovely employee, Emma, the situation and, voila, we had a table reserved during their busy 7 p.m. Friday-night rush. Further, First and Last has an affiliate Italian bakery, so they prepared a made-to-order cake (dubbed by my 15-year-old, food-connoisseur nephew as “Perhaps the best cake I’ve ever eaten”) at the end of the meal.

I’m not going to tell you what the bill came to, but suffice it to say: significant. The Maine Fish Market? Well, they lost that business. However, much more important than that one big dinner (because, I’m certain, the Maine Fish Market didn’t notice our absence)… is, as always, word of mouth and personal reputation. I wouldn’t just not recommend the Maine Fish Market to anyone looking for a restaurant in the Hartford, Conn., area, I would actively DISCOURAGE it. As for First and Last, well, I (and the rest of my family) are huge fans (PS: if you are in Connecticut, go... and order the Cioppino. Amazing!). I expect not only future dinners, but probably a whole lot of bakery orders, as well.

The moral? QUALITY is not enough. Especially for independent businesses (and especially in this economy): service and flexibility are key. Those are the things that keep customers coming back. An establishment like the Maine Fish Market (est. 1986) might be enjoying 2-hour waiting lists on Friday and Saturday nights now, but when they disregard customer loyalty in favor of rigid rules? Well, let’s just say I wouldn’t expect them to EVER be celebrating a 70th anniversary like the First and Last did last year.

Rules are important, but when it comes to your best customers, service is more important. If you are a travel company with a set itinerary and price, think hard before refusing to re-price without airfare for someone who regularly travels with you. A jewelry firm that doesn’t like to change a gemstone in a design? Reconsider before refusing that service to your best customer. A PR firm that has a set retainer, but is approached by an up-and-comer with fabulous potential? Be careful before you turn them away. Remember: there are a million other businesses out there who will happily take your customers by bending rigid rules to accommodate and honor loyalty. Just ask the Maine Fish Market...

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