The Burrito (Manager) Who Could Not Say ‘Sorry’

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Writing The Squeaky Wheel involved lots of research, a good portion of which was done in libraries and online but some of which involved my personal experiences as a consumer. To that end, I decided to pursue even small complaints and dissatisfactions whenever they arose, both to assess complaint handling and customer service practices, and to experience first-hand the impact of different customer service strategies on my own mood, customer satisfaction levels and customer loyalty.

While the decision seemed sound at the time, it often compelled me to complain about the kinds of trivial matters I would never have pursued ordinarily. I urge readers to keep that in mind when reading the following account of my call to the manager of a burrito joint near my office where I often stopped by to pick up a quick lunch. The conversation went roughly as follows:

“Hello may I speak to the manager?”
“Hi. I’m a regular customer of yours. Yesterday lunchtime I purchased a burrito and handed my loyalty card to the person behind the register. He said the card had not yet been activated and had no points on it. I’ve been using my loyalty card regularly, so I knew that wasn’t possible. I said this to them and they insisted I could not have used the card regularly because it had never been activated. It’s possible he swapped my card with another by mistake as there was a mess of cards around the register, in which case we were both right. But regardless, I do not like being called a liar. As the manager, I thought you should know what happened as I’m a little annoyed about it and like I said, I am and would like to remain a regular customer.”
“Yes, that’s me,” he responded. I was confused.
“Yes, you’re the manager?”
“Yes, I’m the person you spoke to yesterday.”
“Oh, you were the person behind the register?”
“Yes. And your card had never been activated.”
“Wait. And you’re also the store manager?”
“You’re the store manager and you were willing to risk losing a regular customer?”
“The card had not been activated.”
“You know what, let’s say it hadn’t. Let’s say I invented the entire story just to get a free burrito. You’ve seen me in the store before, right?”
“And so you knew I was a regular customer.”
“Do you know, it is five times more expensive to acquire new customers than it is to hold on to existing ones by good complaint handling?”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“Well, now you do. Did you know that when a complaint is handled correctly, customers become even more loyal to the store than they were before they had a problem?”
“No, I didn’t know that. Is that for real?”
“Absolutely, I’m writing a book on the topic.”
“Don’t worry it’s not an expose about burritos.”
“Um, okay.”
“But the facts I mentioned are totally true.”
“Oh.” The man was quiet for a moment. Then, “Um, I guess the customer is always right.”
“Yes, that’s the general rule.”
“Huh.” Again he thought for a moment. “Look, I’m sorry about yesterday, dude.”
“That’s nice of you to say.”
“I should have handled things differently, for sure.”
“I’m feeling better already.”
“I really do apologize.”
“I really do appreciate it.”
“And I’d like to give you a free burrito next time you come in.”
“My work here is done.”
The manager laughed, we exchanged names and ended the call.

The next time I saw him in the store was a week later. Standing next to him was his regional manager. The store manager waved hello to me with a big smile, “Hey Guy!” He then turned to his regional manager and announced with a sheepish grin, “That’s the guy I was an asshole to last week!”
The regional manager, all smiles himself, shook my hand and thanked me for conveying the information about complaint handling (which apparently the store manager had passed along). He then gave me a free burrito and asked if I would fill out a customer satisfaction survey. I did so gladly. While my assessment of their food remained the same, my comments about their customer service and especially the efforts of the manager, were very positive indeed.

Service recoveries, when done correctly, can be one of the most powerful tools businesses have for creating customer loyalty and spreading positive word-of-mouth. Sadly, it is a tool far too many businesses neglect to use. However, it is also one that effective squeaky wheels everywhere could impart to their neighborhood businesses and communities themselves, as I did with the burrito shop. Not every manager will be open to such suggestions but some certainly will, especially if you do so calmly and respectfully. So the next time you encounter a service failure from a local business, teach them a squeaky wheel lesson or two—they might thank you for it in the end.

Copyright 2010 Guy Winch

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6 Comments for The Burrito (Manager) Who Could Not Say ‘Sorry’


Guy –

Great example of handling a small issue with a positive outcome here…and indeed your current article (12/28/2010) in PSYCHOLOGY TODAY suggests we make a list of complaints and pick an easy one to start working on. You have certainly demonstrated that with the burrito store manager!

What about more serious problems that don’t get resolved despite appropriate complaints? Any thoughts about how these can become less irritating?

– Bill


    Hi Bill,
    It depends on what kind of serious complaint it is. If it’s a consumer complaint you can escalate it to top executives or management at the company. Writing to the CEO or President of a company can help. Different complaint situations can require different remedies, but if the complaint is meaningful, persistence is often required.
    Thanks for reading!

Traci Entel

Dr. Winch,
I wish I had a penny for the number of misguided burrito managers I encounter. Lead me to write the attached piece – The Empathy Engine. I believe if I could “fix customer service in the world” we would be a happier, healthier society.


    Your Empathy Engine articles are both terrific. One of the most frustrating aspects of customer service these days is how companies ignore the wealth of knowledge that exists and is available to them and with which they could provide state of the art customer service to their customers and clients. Alas, such information is ignored far more often than not. In my book, I inlude the specific steps customers service representatives should take for proper complaint handling, and advocate consumers hold companies to these standards. Your quote about how the world would be a better place if customer service was fixed is one I agree with entirely. I mention something similar in my book, in a section titled “effective complaining utopias”, albeit from the customer’s point of view. Hopefully, the ranks of those who think as we do will continue to swell, especially if more people speak up from the consumer end of things.
    Thanks for sharing such valuable insights!

      Traci Entel

      Thanks for your reply. I recently came across a new tech company that aims to make the wealth of knowledge that is available more real time, and hopefully therefore more actionable/harder to ignore. They have a 90 sec promo video that’s worth watching: I have signed up for a free trial personally to get feedback on my engagement with people in the workplace around a culture evolution that I am leading (a kind of customer service in that I need to role model a set of core beliefs that drive an experience:, but there is also of course great enterprise value to the tool. As you can see, Im a bit of an CS addict…

73 – Complaining effectively with psychologist Guy Winch, part 1

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