The Burrito (Manager) Who Could Not Say 'Sorry'

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?” “Speaking.” “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?” “Yes.” “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?” “Yes.” “And so you knew I was a regular customer.” “Yes.” “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.” “Oh….” “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