Customer Service in New Zealand – Back to Basics

Getting back to basics.

Last weekend was an anomaly of sorts for my husband, our 5yr old daughter and I. Because we both work full-time, our days off are often jam-packed with social engagements, running errands and catching up with family and friends. Last weekend though, we did something radical.

We relaxed.

Saturday was magical. I did two hours of intense exercise in the morning (which I’m still feeling the effects of 72 hours later), then cleaned the house a bit. Miss5 played with the four neighbor boys for hours on end. Hubby delved into the novels he’s begun reading on his iPad2. There was no hurrying and scurrying about.

Like I said, it was magic to not have to be anywhere other than home.

Late in the afternoon our daughter asked us (completely out of the blue) if we could go out for dinner. Hubby and I looked at each other excitedly and smiled. The three of us have never gone out for a family meal in New Zealand. If we were dogs, our tails would’ve been wagging full-tilt.

The first step to going out for dinner in New Zealand is figuring out where to go. It’s frustrating for me to have to spend 30 minutes thinking about places to eat that welcome families. Kiwis as a whole tend to look down their noses at people who dare to bring their kids along for a dinner out. This is totally foreign to me.

In the USA, good customer service isn’t aberrant – it’s expected.

Growing up in California, where there seem to be more restaurants per-capita than anywhere else, we ate out a lot. From a young age I learned to enjoy the social aspect of being out. I learned how to hold my utensils as well as a polite conversation. Most of all though, I also learned about what keeps people coming back again and again – quality customer service.

Customer service, especially in the restaurant industry in the USA, is an art form. People make life-long careers out of serving customers, and serving them well. When you marry the ideas of social interaction with the expectation of good food and superb service and you realize that people are paying not only for meals, but for the way the staff makes you feel while you’re dining out.

Customer service breakdown.

In the past eight years I’ve noticed many times and across industries that customer service isn’t a priority for many businesses and their front-line staff here in NZ. It’s frustrating as hell too. It gets even worse when I get handed (time and time again) the old “We’re not a tipping culture so we don’t really rely on good service.” line over and over and over…

C’mon people. You have to put customers first every chance you can. You need to impress them. Get to know them. Entice them back. Shape them into loyal and returning business. Otherwise, you’re doomed. Literally.

The easiest ways to engage with people as a business are the same as you would engage with people as an individual:

1) Smile and say hello
(see it’s easy!)

2) Ask people how they’re doing and how you can help them

3) Treat everyone with respect and kindness

4) Know your industry and know your customers
(people going to a dairy have different expectations to people heading to a top restaurant)

5) Meet their basic needs – then go beyond those
(things like learning their names, their favourite drinks, their preferred tables all go a long way in creating loyalty)

6) Empower your front-line staff

7) Treat creating loyal customers as a courtship of sorts
(woo your customers – compliment them, treat them like they’re the most important thing to your company – because they are!)

These are the simplest ways to get people hooked and coming back for more. Once you’ve gained their attention, go above and beyond. They’ll notice – believe me, they will.

Lone Star left a bad taste.

It’s damn expensive to go out to dinner here. Much more expensive than back home where meals are literally as cheap as chips. So if I’m going to make a commitment to spend my hard earned cash, I expect to be treated – not to be tolerated. Last Saturday night, my family was neither treated or tolerate when we went to The Lone Star Bar and CafΓ¨ in Takapuna.

As a brand, Lone Star prides itself on positive reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations. Having been on the receiving end of a positive recommendation, we decided to go there for dinner. We were all excited. I had ideas running through my head about what I would splurge on for dinner (cost and calories both included) and about the potential future meals we’d have there.

To make sure we beat the rush for the evening and didn’t inconvienence other guests, we arrived early. Right on opening time to be exact. What we found was a mostly empty restaurant. In total there were 6 people in the entire place (not including the staff).

As we stepped in we greeted sans smile. We were then hurried to the furthest back corner of the place – past an entire wall of empty booths and roomy tables – and stuck in a corner at a two-person table. Um, there were three of us. We mentioned this and were told that the booths would be for the “expected influx” of diners coming in later. Again, the restaurant was EMPTY and rush-hour was still three-hours away.

I looked at my husband, and he looked at me. We didn’t need to say another word. Was our money not as good as that of the people who would be showing up later than us? Did we get singled out as people dining with a small child and thus pushed into the darkest depths of the restaurant? Whatever their reasoning, I wasn’t buying it. Literally.

Instead of teaching our child how to use her utensils properly and carry on polite conversation, we taught her another valuable lesson: how to walk out of a place when you’re not being served to a certain standard.

I’d say Lone Star missed out on $150 from us that night. It’s not an huge amount but they’ve also missed out on any future patronage from us as well as any positive word of mouth.

We won’t be going back any time soon.

Sometimes when the big boys fail, the little guys shine.

In the end, we went to Denny’s which lived up to my expectations as a customer and then some. We were welcomed with smiles, seated in a booth (in fairness, all of their tables are booths) and served quickly. Our child was treated as an important part of the equation and our food was hot and tasty. We all left with full bellies and an agreement that we’d go back there many times over before heading to a place as unwelcoming as the Lone Star.

I don’t mean to be negative about ALL New Zealand businesses when it comes to putting customers first. There are many places who get the basics right and then go above and beyond. First to mind are companies like Air New Zealand, Pac N Save, Noodle Canteen (my local in Birkenhead) and many others. In fact, this blog pointed mostly at those in the restaurant industry and retail side of things.

The old excuses about not being from a tipping culture are just that – they’re old. They’re stale. They don’t stack up anymore.

Kiwis are well traveled and when people visit here from overseas they expect to be served well. As customers, we’re paying for more than just food on a plate or a new jacket – we’re paying for the experience of being out and about. Because, in reality, it’s the human element that makes up the front-line-feel-good-aspect for brands. With it, most problems (no matter how big or small) can be solved in a positive way.

Without it, everyone would just shop online.

As for me, I assumed by now (after publicly airing my malcontent about our treatment multiple times on Twitter, etc.) that someone from Lone Star would have gotten in touch to offer a simple apology. I haven’t heard a whisper.

It’s a shame really. But it just goes to show how a small amount of good customer service goes a long way in creating brand champions, while a negative experience can leave a bad taste in people’s mouths for a long time. So go forth, treat people right and reap the rewards! There’s a bounty waiting out there for your business if you know how to treat people right.

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