Anyone who reads my columns knows how much I respect customer service. Acts of customer service are the basis for success, but too often success brings arrogance and apathy. The real kicker here is leadership, and too many execs are so mesmerized by their own success and that of their organization they forget the basic rule: Take care of the customer.
One of the great lessons of customer service happened to me a number of years ago in the small town of Detroit Lakes, Minn., when I met Ollie Olsen, the owner of a small restaurant on the towns main street. The place was always bustling with customers, and because I had a summer cottage on a nearby lake, I would stop in for a cup of coffee and a sweet roll every once in a while.
All the waitresses had smiles on their faces and they seemed to be legitimately enjoying their work. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, there was Ollie moving around the sizable restaurant saying hello to people and asking them if everything was OKalways with a big smile.
One summer I arrived at his restaurant and there was a line of people waiting to get into the cafe. Ollie was outside with a pitcher of coffee in one hand and cups in the other hand that he handed out to those who were waiting to get in. He apologized profusely for the delay and made sure everyone understood how much he appreciated them coming to his establishment for breakfast. A couple of years later, I walked into the cafe and the place wasnt nearly as busy as it used to be in terms of customer traffic. And it all came down to one thing: Ollie had become ill and no longer owned the restaurant. It just wasnt the same.
I saw the same thing happen here in Chicago a couple of years ago. There used to be a great steakhouse north of the city, near where I live, run by a man who was known as Willie. He used to stand close to the front door and welcome everyone who came in with a nod, a smile and a wink as though you were the only person he had seen all night. The bar was jammed with people waiting for tables, and Willie would seat every group in the order in which theyd entered the restaurant. He was terrific, and people enjoyed his casual but orderly way of handling people. Additionally, the food was terrific and his steakhouse did a land-office business. However, like Ollie, Willie became ill and he had to give up his restaurant. I went into the place once this past summer. There were a few patrons scattered around the place, but the service was slow and the food was mediocre.