Congratulations. You’ve entered an exciting business that is fast becoming one of the hottest gigs out there in these economically uncertain times. You have spent a lot of time and resources starting up your new hot dog cart business. Researching the best supplier of the cart you need, getting all the necessary permits, licenses, product sources, cart locations and so on. Now it’s “Showtime”. What is now the number one tool that you need to master in order to make sure you build and maintain a growing and successful business?
We’ve all been there. We find ourselves in a store, garage, bank or any other commercial facility for that matter, only to have someone treat us with less respect than we feel we have a right to. Doesn’t really surprise us much anymore these days does it? Manners don’t seem to be taught with the same level of importance as they once enjoyed. As a result, it seems likely that in most cases, customers will be “processed” rather than “served” by the clerk or owner of the business. I get a kick out of those detached, seemingly disinterested clerks who sport cute nametags identifying them as “Customer Service” representatives. Many of us simply grin and bear it. “It’s just the way things are nowadays” we muse as we walk away shaking our heads and remembering the “good old days”.
Well, I for one don’t buy it. There is simply no excuse for rudeness or for adopting an emotionally detached attitude on the part of those who are paid to serve us.
Not long ago, I was going through the checkout at the local grocery store. The clerk never looked me in the eye and never said a word to me. Really, not even telling me how much it all came to. She just held out her hand to receive the credit card she had noticed me fidgeting with. I handed it to her, watched her swipe the card, wait for the sales slip to emerge from the register, and then put it down on the counter in front of me with a pen. I was amazed. “Congratulations” I said to her. She sort of woke up from a trance and said “huh?” I told her that she had gone through the entire process without uttering a single word. That almost got a smile, but I think I was just imagining it. I thanked her, gathered up the bags and left the store.
Granted, in today’s economy there are numerous menial or minimum wage jobs that present a challenge to one who want to do the right thing when it comes to treating customers properly. Understandably, one in such a job might conclude that there is no future in this job. It’s just a stepping stone until something better turns up. Lousy hours, poor benefits if any and maybe an overly demanding boss may contribute to a less than enthusiastic outlook. Still, that’s no excuse.
Let me give you an example. Some years ago, a young man, fresh out of high school was working as a part-time clerk at a gas bar. Let’s face it, not the best job to land for a youthful but ambitious person entering the workforce. He could have easily adopted the status quo model of the disinterested clerk just putting in time until something more appropriate to his or her noble aspirations came along. This guy was different. He greeted everyone with a big smile. His “thank-you” at the end of the transaction seemed really genuine. When he told his customers to have a good day, it seemed like he really wanted them to do just that. What was most impressive was how he treated his customers when they came back. He would seem to brighten up as if he had just noticed a good friend coming into the store. “Nice to see you again” he would say with another sincere sounding request as to how you were doing. In just a couple of visits, customers couldn’t help but feel at ease, comfortable in the store and with the sales experience. He sported a name tag that simply said “BEN” in big letters, and was soon addressed by name from those frequenting the gas bar. Even more impressive was that he used the customer’s name whenever it was appropriate. He would most often get this from the first transaction when a customer would present a credit card. The card would be processed then handed back to the customer. When leaving, instead of just saying “thank you”, he would say “thanks again Mr. Jones, come back soon.” He would make an effort to remember the names of customers who came back regularly, and greet them by name when they came in. Think about it for a moment. Imagine how Mr. Jones felt. Imagine how you would feel if that happened to you.
Sound a little mom and apple pie-ish? (I made that last word up) Absolutely not! What this young man was doing, whether he realized it or not, was using a tried and true technique that more than anything else, gets people coming back. It makes people want to come back, actually looking forward to the next time. Let’s face it, isn’t that what a growing business is all about? So, what is the secret weapon?
The expression “personal service” is used by literally thousands of companies and stores around the world that often include such sentiments in their logos, advertising and signage. Most of the time we don’t give it a moment’s notice, as more often than not, the service you get from them isn’t much better than anyone else you grace with your business.
But you must believe this… more than anything else, remembering and recognizing your customers is perhaps the most important item in your business tool box. A customer will put up with just about anything these days, but a lousy, disinterested attitude isn’t one of them. If you’re the only game in town, well, you might get by, for now. If not, then you’ll soon lose out to someone who realizes the power of customer recognition.
People like to be recognized and respected. It’s a basic need we all have. Remembering your customer and letting them know you do, provides one of the most heart-warming shopping experiences they can have.
It was once the luxury afforded only to the well healed, successful person who would walk into a restaurant and be greeted by the waiter who welcomed them by name and directed them to their table. Add to that a pleasant invitation such as “Gin and tonic Mr. Jones?” as he remembered his customer’s favorite pre-dinner beverage that was ordered on the last visit.
How does he remember all that information with so many customers? Let’s go back to our gas bar clerk. He would keep a small notebook beside the cash register where he would jot down little pieces of information about each customer who came back repeatedly. Perhaps his notes included the customer’s name, the kind of car they drove, the license number or anything else that he wanted to remember.
The Hot Dog Cart Vendor
Ok, so how does all of this help the hot dog cart vendor? Easy. You’ve probably figured it out already.
Think about experiences you have had yourself with others in the business. If you’ve decided to get into the hot dog cart business, you almost certainly were a customer of another vendor at least once in your life. Likely many times, as you remember how you were drawn to the concept by your senses of smell and taste. Can you remember how you were treated? The hot dog was good, the pop was cold and you may even have dropped a quarter in the tip jar as the vendor turned to the next customer and said “What’ll it be?” Not a bad experience, but not a memorable one either. Or, perhaps you had a much more impact experience where the vendor treated you like you were Brad Pitt entering the Waldorf Astoria dining room. Hey, why not? You see, that’s what makes the difference between the “great” and the “other guys” in any business. Why not in the hot dog cart business as well?
Making the effort to remember your customers and then recognizing them personally the next time they show up is really the key to keep them coming back. Customer loyalty these days is all but a forgotten concept. Well, so were vinyl records, but guess what? They’re making a noticeable comeback among the musical purist groups. Believe it or not, customer loyalty to a local hot dog cart vendor is very possible. You’ll be amazed at how friendly people will be and how willing they will be to part with their hard earned “lunch money” to an outgoing and happy vendor who can actually become a personal friend.
Word of Mouth Advertising
Advertising, especially for the small business owner, can be an expensive and daunting concept. However, never forget the power of a happy and satisfied customer who is quick to tell anyone who asks, where to get the best lunch in town. It’s always gratifying as well, to take someone to your favorite hot dog cart and show off a little, by saying something like… “Hi Sam. I told my friend here that you have the best dogs in town”. Everyone likes his or her friends to notice that you know the owner personally. Silly perhaps, but it’s true. It really happens.
“The customer is always right”, so says the time honored phrase originally penned as far as we know, by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London early at the turn of the last century. I guess the reason was to somehow convince the customer that no matter what happened in Harry’s store, they would leave satisfied.
There is some truth to the concept, at least there is to the noble aspiration to please all your customers at all costs. The truth of the matter is that the customer isn’t always right. There are some customers for example that you don’t want to have come back. Fortunately, they are still well in the minority. Shoppers today for the most part, are beat up, poorly treated and in fact, often not treated at all as they wander around the big impersonal box stores looking for someone wearing an apron that actually works in the store. This makes for a larger population of customers who come to you already in a bad mood as they fully expect you to treat them in the same fashion as they are used to.
By turning on the charm with every customer including the new face you’ve never seen before and treating them with a big smile and sincere greeting, you’ll melt the ice very quickly.
But what do you do if you do get a complaint?
With a hot dog cart business, there won’t be too many areas that a customer can complain about, however, there are some areas you need to be aware of. Here’s a partial list…
1. Detached or disinterested attitude of the vendor
2. Dirty cart or messy condiment dispensers
3. Condiments exposed to flies or left uncovered
4. Poorly dress and/or grooming on the part of the vendor
5. No serviettes or napkins
6. Cold or lukewarm wieners or sausages
7. Drinks served less than ice cold
8. Lack of adequate choices such as mild, medium and spicy sausages
9. Lack of sufficient condiments
Items 1 through 4 are quite serious and in fact may indicate that you have chosen the wrong business to get into. Number 1 likely explains why 2, 3 and 4 exist. Assuming that 1 through 4 are not on your list of possible areas of complaint, we can easily train ourselves to keep a sharp eye on other areas that can quickly get out of hand.
The first thing to do if you do get a complaint is take a breath and think before you say a word. Many possibilities exist here. You may have misunderstood an attempt at sarcasm or humor. By responding in kind, you may actually be the one to start the problem. If unclear as to what they said, or what they meant, be quick to apologize and ask for clarification.
Be thankful that the customer is expressing his or her dissatisfaction with you, and not 10 others of their friends, the typical number of those with whom dissatisfied customers share bad shopping or dining experiences.
Be quick to apologize. A sincere apology doesn’t always admit liability in the problem. Apologize for the simple fact that your customer thinks he received less than what he expected from the experience.
Have empathy for the customer. This means that you want to put yourself in their shoes for a moment and try to understand what it would feel like if you felt the same way about the product or service. Remember, this is not yet about who’s right or wrong. If the customer thinks they were not treated properly or didn’t get good value for their money, then as far as they’re concerned, they didn’t. It’s that simple. Like it or not, perception is reality. Your job is to deal with their perception of what happened (or didn’t happen as the case may be) and try to fix the problem.
If the complaint is regarding the cleanliness or the cart, don’t get defensive. Acknowledge that they are right. Explain that you’ve been very busy, but that you realize it’s not an excuse. Thank them for pointing out the deficiency and either start the cleanup right away, or promise to do it at the first available opportunity. In this case, they are actually doing you a favor.
If you receive a complaint that really does point out an area where you could make significant improvement to your operation, then offer to reward them for the tip. Perhaps giving them a voucher for a free hot dog, or free cold drink when they come back.
What about the really difficult customer? Maybe overly picky about something minor, like they don’t like the brand of ketchup you serve. As mentioned earlier, there really are some customers who are just evil, no other way to describe them. They just like to cause trouble. Give them the benefit of the doubt however and do what you can to have them go away with at least some sense that they came out on top. Good point to keep in mind, that if you get into a serious disagreement with a customer, they may not be right, but they most likely will win. You’ll at least have a lousy day from that point on, may find yourself snapping at other customers and will feel the bile rising whenever you see that individual again. The goal here is to cut the problem off at the knees as tactfully as possible and going on with the rest of your life as unscathed as possible. Here is a short list of some of the key steps you can use in such cases…
1. Do not argue, even if you are right.
2. Apologize for the fact that their experience with you was less than satisfactory. This is not admitting you were in the wrong, just that they are unhappy.
3. If it is something you really can fix or improve in your operation, thank them for pointing out the problem and promise to remedy it as soon as possible.
4. Ask them what you could do for them that would have them leave happy and most importantly, come back again.
Number 4 might seem a little contradictory. It may in fact be a customer that at that moment, you are convinced you never want to see again. But you must look at this with a clear head. He or she is not just 1 customer; they may be able to poison 10 or more existing and/or potential future customers. So pretend you are dealing with a group rather than an individual, realizing that if you diffuse the leader, you will slay the dragon.
You may feel you are sticking your neck out to be taken advantage of by asking them what you could do to make them happy. They may for example; say they should not have to pay for the hot dog. Can you live with that? Of course you can, but don’t give it away without making a deal with them. Smile and say something like… “If I give you your lunch free today, will you be satisfied and come back again tomorrow with all your friends?” The very least you will have accomplished is that you will feel better. Your day will be salvageable. You will have diffused a tense situation. You will have cut off a potential bad publicity situation and… you may have saved a customer who may turn out to be not as bad as we thought at the first. At what cost? The price of a hot dog and maybe a can of pop. Very inexpensive given the price of the alternatives. Never feel that you have been taken advantage of, look at it as an opportunity to demonstrate what you really believe to be the best “customer service” offered by anyone in town, not just the competing hot dog cart vendors.
Good customer service depends on you truly caring about your customers, not just the income they provide you with. Keep in mind unless you are filthy rich and you’re just looking for something else to do to help pass the time, you need your customers. It doesn’t matter what you are selling or what service you are offering, it is absolutely of no value unless someone is willing to part with their money to obtain what you are selling. Treat every customer as if this was the one transaction you needed to tip you over the top to success.
Unless you have your cart permanently set in front of the main doors of Grand Central Station in New York, your success depends not on the number of customers who come to you for the first time, but the ones who return time after time.
Remember the old simple rule, “treat others the same way you would like to be treated” and you will quickly become a customer service expert and a successful hot dog cart vendor.