Customer Service Is Not Rocket Science

(This post has nothing to do with technical matters except insofar as this story happened in geek paradise.)

I was down at Fry's Electronics yesterday -- huge electronics warehouse. Geek paradise. Everything from DVD boxed sets to multimeters. Why I was there is unimportant; let's just say that the connector consipiracy is after me in a big way. This was my second time in Fry's, Leah's first.

It took a while to figure out what was the right Monster widget I needed to fix my problem, it was getting into the afternoon and we were getting kind of peckish. "There's a sandwich shop right here in the store" said Leah. Perfect.

These guys think of everything -- you want people to spend all day shopping in your store, you've got to feed them. Smart business move.

Or is it? Maybe not.

We go into the sandwich shop, stand in line for a while, order chicken salad for Leah, pastrami, hot, no mustard for me. Sit down at a table.

The line was quite slow, but, whatever. No problem yet.

We wait. And wait. And wait. And wait some more. The place has other customers, but not so many that it should take twenty minutes to put together a couple of sandwiches. I ask the guy who took our order what was up with the sandwiches

"Yeah, they're coming".

We now have a problem, obviously, but this problem is merely Vexing. I can live with Vexing.

A couple minutes later, there's still no sign of Leah's sandwich, but mine arrives -- covered in mustard.

Now we have a more serious problem. Three problems actually: where's Leah's sandwich, why is mine covered in mustard, and why is this all taking so long? We have moved from the Vexing category to Boneheaded.

We are now seriously low on blood sugar and getting cranky.

I once more go up to the guy and point out that my sandwich has mustard on it.

I am not making this up: the very first thing out of his mouth is

"That's not my fault. You saw me write down 'no mustard'."

OK, now we have a BIIIG problem. We have rapidly left Boneheaded far behind and are firmly ensconced into the Fatal problem category. We now have a meta-problem. This guy wants to argue with me about whose fault it is, rather than making me a new sandwich. I am not particularly interested in having that conversation.

"Look, you know what, I could have driven home and made a sandwich in the amount of time we've been waiting. Leah's still hasn't shown up. Void out the transaction and we'll just eat at home."

"I need my manager to void a transaction."

"You do what you have to do, Zach."

At this point we start watching the clock with growing interest.

A solid five minutes later, a young woman ambles in, who is apparently the manager. She completely ignores me -- she does not speak a single word to me throughout this entire encounter, though she does attempt a feeble, unconvincing justification to Leah on the subject of why it is that a chicken salad takes so long.

She chews out Zach for writing down Leah's order with no table number.

She then chews out the sandwich makers -- who, I gather from her conversation with them, found an order for a chicken salad, made it, discovered that there was no table number written on the order, and therefore stuck it behind the counter and ignored it.

Obviously this belies her earlier ridiculous explanation that chicken salad takes a long time to prepare, but she chooses to ignore this little contradition.

Now, I used to make sandwiches for a living, and let me tell you, even if you have only a few simple sandwich making skills, it's not that hard to figure out that someone probably wants to eat that sandwich, and that if you don't know to whom it belongs, it behooves you to find out. I mean, what did they think would be the outcome of hiding it? (If you guessed "they'd give up, go home and blog about it" -- you're right!)

When she's done chewing out her staff, she admits that actually, she has no idea how to work the cash register and therefore cannot void out the transaction. She needs her manager.

So far, I have encountered zero competent employees, and a considerable number of incompetent employees. We sit back to watch the clock again.

You know those old Star Trek TNG episodes where Picard goes "hostile aliens are loose in the Engineering Room! Riker, Worf, take care of it!" and then instead of, oh, I don't know, beaming themselves instantaneously into engineering, they kind of walk -- briskly -- the quarter mile from the bridge to the engine room? My initial conjecture was that things were taking so long because everyone was really, really busy serving other customers. Based on the speed that they actually move, I'm now starting to think that they're just plain slow.

Anyway, ANOTHER solid five minutes later, the manager's manager ambles in. This guy attempts to save the day. After he's brought up to speed by the cashier and the manager, the first thing out of his mouth is "I'm sorry this happened."

"You know, you're the first person to say that in the last fifteen minutes."

"Oh. Well. I'm sorry about that too."

We are, for the first time, on the right track. Can he pull it off? Tragically, no. He tries to do the right thing, but he screws it up. How he screws it up is interesting. Thus far, every mistake made has been due to total incompetence. Let's break it down:

First order mistakes: Hide a sandwich when you don't know whose it is. Put mustard on a sandwich where the order clearly says no mustard. Fail to understand how your own cash register works.

Second order mistkes: When given a customer problem, engage in blame shifting. Argue back to the customer. Ignore the customer's problem while you concentrate on process. Don't take responsiblity for your mistakes. Don't apologize. Don't do anything to actually SOLVE the PRIMARY problem (two hungry people with a basket full of high margin widgets that they'd like to buy). Call in multiple levels of management to solve a simple sandwich making issue.

These are all ridiculous and obvious mistakes that should be covered in the first day of new employee orientation at a business that so heavily depends on repeat customers.

What was the manager's final, deal breaking mistake?

"Is there anything we can do to make it up to you?"

This last mistake is subtle. Clearly he meant well and knew what to do -- apologize, take responsibility, mollify the customer -- but not how to do it.

The problem is that I've already told them what I want them to do -- I want them to give me a sandwich, and, if they cannot, to give me my money back so that I can stop spending my incredibly busy day with time-wasting morons.

Engaging in a negotiation with management over what would be an appropriate level of contrition for them to display for the disaster they've managed to embroil me in is not how I want to spend another second of my day. We are in this situation BECAUSE I want to stop talking to them.

Figuring out what they can do for me when they screw up is management's job, not the customer's job! Thus, I said "Thanks, but I'm just going home." put down my basket, and left.

Customer service at a sandwich shop is not rocket science. I said in an earlier entry:

My father has been in the restaurant business for many years. Something he taught me at an early age is that one measure of the quality of a restaurant is how few mistakes they make, but a more important measure is how they treat the customer once a mistake has been made. Do they apologize, take responsibility, and immediately act to correct the mistake, or do they engage in cover-ups, blame-shifting and foot-dragging? I don't go back to the second kind of restaurant.

When that happens to me at a restaurant where the core competency is in serving food, the restarant probably loses tens or hundreds of dollars of business from me. In a restaurant business where the core competency is actually separating technology-loving geeks like me from thousands of dollars at a time, the opportunity cost of making a customer relations disaster out of a sandwich is considerably higher.

Finally, let me make this very clear: though obviously it is fun to vent, that's not my primary purpose here. I want to call attention to this problem in a public way because Fry's sells Microsoft products and therefore I want them to succeed. Even if I cannot, in good conscience, ever shop there again, I want other people to have a pleasant shopping experience there, and buy lots of computers and XBox games. If I didn't want them fixed, I wouldn't point out the problems.

I'm going to send a link to this to upper management at Fry's, and I invite them to respond with details of how they're solving these problems.

Comments (26)

  1. mike says:

    Interesting post, thanks. I think there are number of lessons here, as you point out. I also wonder whether this isn’t an illustration (yet again, perhaps) that one of the downsides of these megastores is that they don’t really have any connection with their customers as such. When I need home improvement stuff, I can go to Home Depot or I can go to my local hardware store. Home Depot is cheaper and usually (surprisingly, not always) better stocked. But the help at the local store is more competent, there is more of it, they’re friendly, you can actually find them, and as you so precisely point out, they make things right. This last is critical to their business; they hope for repeat business from the neighborhood, and are well aware that a pissed-off ex-customer can drive a few more minutes to get to Home Depot.

  2. Doug Thews says:

    Very interesting post. I loved the "It’s not my fault" excuse (obviously not at your expense, though).

  3. Steve Hall says:

    This sounds EXACTLY like the so-called "deli" in the infamous Sunnyvale store. I’m surprised they didn’t tell you to take the defective sandwich to the refund line at the front of the store!

    The technique I’ve used for over 20 years at Fry’s is this: Know EXACTLY what you want before going in (do your homework; browsing will simply cause you to buy some of Fry’s infamous cheap discontinued crappy stuff), buy an unopened non-returned box (that doesn’t look like it’s been drop-kicked all the way from Winamucka, MA), run for the cash-out line WITHOUT stopping to talk to any of the sales-droids…lest you will come dangerously close to the event horizon of Fry’s infamous intelligence black-hole!

    Remember that Fry’s operates on the super-market "loss leader" sales technique that the Fry’s brothers learned from their father running the Fry’s Supermarket chain. Thus, a good sizable portion of the merchandise in each weeks newspaper ads are discontinued products that they’ve bought at discount or auction and are likely to have engineering or production bugs in them… (I know so: I’ve fallen for quite a lot of their "odd lot" too-good-to-be-true sales merchandise…)

    With that kind of sales model in mind, do you REALLY expect good customer service from ANYONE in those stores? What kind of service do you expect from a "floor person" inside a supermarket? Have you ever asked a Fry’s floor person a simple question like: "What’s the highest resolution of that $10,000 flat panel TV?" Even though those guys are on commission, they’ll do their used-car-salesmen best to give you the wrong answer just to get to you to make a "snap decision" and buy it! This would be equivalent to asking the person behind the deli counter at a supermarket: "Is that cole-slaw made with milk, since I’m lactose intolerant?" Would you believe ANYTHING that person told you?

    Your expectations of service at Fry’s is way out of whack with their corporate goals. I wouldn’t expect Fry’s to help too much in the way of selling Microsoft software, as I’ve never found ANYONE in any of the stores in Silicon Valley who know ANYTHING about ANY of the software they sell… Most employees wouldn’t know the difference between two different releases of say, Office, other than they’re different releases! You’d have better luck with the produce guy in the supermarket knowing the difference between Pippin and Granny Smith apples.

    What a company like Microsoft HAS to do in order to get some amount of intelligence in their sales staff is to offer (nay, DEMAND!) to train a certain number of the sales-folks the obvious technical merits of each product they’re selling. Fry’s will NOT do this on their own! (I know so: I used to work for a company that tried to get them to sell some products, and they absolutely refused to learn anything unless we spent a LOT of time training them…)

    Just remember that the box containing a 25-client license for SQL Server 2K is no different than a bag of apples to most of the Fry’s sales-droids.

    On the other hand, the sales-folks at my local Taiwanese run PC shop (Central Computers) is a LOT more knowledgeable about the software (and hardware) they sell. They actually hire geeks who know something! The "big box" stores suffer from the idea that they can turn ANYONE into a lettuce/software/new-car salesman with a fews of basic sales training. Basically, one of the tenets of large-scale merchandising is that of "production of sales", in place of "quality of the sales experience". Most mass merchandisers passionately believe that "service" simply means pricing it low enough in order to "prodouce sales". Aka, "WalMart syndrome". (As you note, other "big box" stores suffer from this, like Home Depot. Fortunately, my local Home Depot has a LOT of knowledgeable and helpful folks. Probably ’cause they’re just thankful to have a job in crappy Silicon Valley!)

    Better yet, you should be thankful the deli didn’t hand you a phone handset to talk to a manager in Bangalore, India to file your complaint! (Don’t worry: with the WalMart’ing of America by our great business leaders…and least those that aren’t yet in jail…that’s coming!)

  4. Clinton Pierce says:

    "What was the manager’s final, deal breaking mistake? ‘Is there anything we can do to make it up to you?’ This last mistake is subtle. Clearly he meant well and knew what to do — apologize, take responsibility, mollify the customer — but not how to do it."

    I actually don’t think that this was a mistake at all. I would think that at this point, the situation is somewhat beyond "return things to normal, this will satisfy the customer." You’ve stepped off into, "the customer wants the wade in the blood of the guilty to return to square one."

    So the manager didn’t know exactly what you wanted. Did you want an apology from a suit? Your lunch for free? The sandwich maker publicly flogged? 10% off on your next visit?

    If it were me, I think I’d have made the situation completely right first and then asked the question though.

  5. vbNullString says:

    I wrote my blog related to your article here… I also became bonehead in my office. Here is the link to it.

  6. Cass says:

    >"What was the manager’s final, deal breaking mistake? ‘Is there anything we can do to make it up to you?’ This last mistake is subtle. Clearly he meant well and knew what to do — apologize, take responsibility, mollify the customer — but not how to do it."


    I agree with Eric, this is wrong. The customer is upset, really this is in no mood for bargaining, he doesn’t want to have to suggest ways that the management can make it up to him. Considering this is all simply over a couple of sandwichs and a long annoying wait (and considering the basket of other costly goodies on the table), he should have refunded the money and had sandwiches made out the back for free. ie "I am sorry Mr Lippert, I will sort out this problem, you will get a full refund, in the meantime we will send you out the sandwiches that you ordered, on the house". Manager number one could have handled that. Heck if I was the employee, I would have looked around for a manager and thought ‘hey I can cover my own back by getting them some free sandwiches’.


  7. Take Outs for 4 April 2004

  8. > First order mistakes: Hide a sandwich when

    > you don’t know whose it is. Put mustard

    > on a sandwich where the order clearly says

    > no mustard. Fail to understand how your

    > own cash register works.

    And: Fail to put the table number on the ticket.

  9. Dave Anderson says:

    Ever since I came across this site, I have been unable to pass up a good Fry’s rant:

    It amazes me that anyone goes to Fry’s at all.

  10. Smelly says:

    If I remember correctly back to my pizza store management days (at the ripe old age of 18), it was basically rule #1 to never let a customer leave mad, because it was pretty much a guarantee that a)he or she was HIGHLY unlikely to EVER return, and that b) he or she was HIGHLY likely to tell a number of other people about their bad experience.

    While asking what can be done to fix the problem isn’t all that bad, letting you leave without doing anything at all is pretty unforgiveable.

  11. I would have been surprised to read an anecdote about GOOD customer service at Fry’s. I didn’t think they had any kind other than "bad" or "nonexistent." It seems clear to me that their business plan does not involve customer service.

  12. Eric Lippert says:

    Re: What kind of service do you expect from a "floor person" inside a supermarket?

    I’ve always had very good customer service at the supermarkets I go to — in general, the staff does know a lot about the origin of the products they sell.

    Second, you’re kind of comparing apples and oranges here. I’ve had no bad experiences with the floor staff at Fry’s. When I was shopping for media center PC’s, the staff at Fry’s knew way, way more about them than the staff at Best Buy.

    Re: Your expectations … way out of whack with their corporate goals.

    Then there is a deeper problem here. If you build a sleek, wood-paneled, comfortable sandwich shop with a wide variety of fresh-made sandwiches then you are communicating to the customer "you should expect personal service and attention to detail". If that’s not what they intend to convey, they shouldn’t do that!

    Look at what IKEA does — they also want people to spend all day at IKEA, and therefore need to feed people, so they have cafeteria-style restaurants that serve ready-made swedish meatballs. That communicates an entirely different set of expectations.

    Which of course is not to say that basic customer service isn’t important to IKEA, but rather that they’ve chosen to offer a level of service in line with their corporate goals.

  13. Eric Lippert says:

    Re: You’ve stepped off into, "the customer wants the wade in the blood of the guilty

    No — I was mad, but I’m still Canadian. ๐Ÿ™‚ There were lots of simple things they could have done, and had they, I’d be writing a blog today about how Fry’s got it right. All I really wanted was some evidence that my business was important to them.

    Good tech support people — who by the nature of the job deal with irked customers all day long — know how to deal with these kinds of situations because there are _policies_ in place. "You have authority to spend up to $25 of company money to mollify an angry customer", for instance. Smart companies know what the opportunity cost of losing a customer is and design their policies accordingly.

    You assert that the manager didn’t know what I wanted that would make it right. Correct — it’s his job to figure that out, guided by policy and the brains that got him to his managerial position.

    The cashier, when alerted to the fact that there was a problem, should have said "Sorry about that. You’re right, this is taking too long. I will find Leah’s sandwich and get the cooks to stop everything and re-build your sandwich correctly." Because really, the problem is "keep these guys in the store", and that solves the problem.

    Once we got to the point where I was actively trying to leave the store, the problem is no longer "keep them in the store" — in fact, solving that problem makes it worse. The problem is now "how do we get them to come back?" An apology and a gift certificate good on my next visit would have gone a long way.

  14. My experiences with Fry’s have always been terrible so I simply won’t shop there again (and I’m happy to tell others not to shop there either).

    Point one, Fry’s ‘guarantee’ of lowest prices is, frankly, rubbish. I wanted a portable DVD player. List price $1,500. Fry’s price $1,000. Pretty good. But I paid $850 for it. Where? Online. After I’d been to Fry’s in person to *try* to buy it… bringing me to point two…

    Point two, poor service. I go in, I find what I’m looking for (eventually – none of the staff seemed to know or care what a portable DVD player was!). I flag down another member of staff to ask them questions about the player. They don’t know the answer and don’t seem very interested in helping me. I ask if I could see the instruction manual so I can get a sense of what features the palyer has. He ambles off – slowly – and after an interminable wait comes back saying he can’t find the manual. I ask to speak to a manager and at first the guy says he won’t get his manager. I insist and finally the manager is brought over and I explain the whole thing again. The manager tells me point blank that I can’t look at the manual. I ask if they actually want me to buy this $1,000 item. The young guy just stares at me. His manager says "That’s up to you". And, yes, it was.

    So I left and I’ve never returned. They effectively said "We don’t care if you spend $1,000 with us or not" – they didn’t *care* whether I was their customer or not!!!

    In general, I’ve found customer service to be so poor in most warehouse-style stores that I try to shop almost exclusively online these day (and generally find I get much better prices and, on the odd occasion that there has been a problem, much better service).

  15. Robert Hahn says:

    Hey, Eric.

    Maybe you should, you know, open up a restaurant or something. Show ’em how it’s done. ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. Eric Lippert says:

    I watched my father own a restaurant for many years, and that was more than enough to convince me that I’m not cut out for small business ownership in general, and restaurant ownership specifically. The level of stress is tremendous.

    I do find the idea of working in the service industry attractive though. I think I’d make a pretty good waiter and I’d enjoy the work.

  17. David S says:

    Eric, I’m surprised you didn’t see this one coming. This is Fry’s we’re talking about. Employees exist because they *have* to, not because they know how to do anything. Their whole business is based on the fact that their prices are low enough to keep people coming back. Sad but true.

  18. Peter Torr says:

    I would so tip you the big bucks if you were my waiter – I bet you’d be a hoot! ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. I am dismayed that you did not expect the occasional bout of poor service for you cheap food. You are depending on the performance of underpaid employees. If you want better service why don’t you pay for it next time?

    And who are these other fools who think they are getting the best price for tech goodies at a big box "discount" store. Obviously they have been listening too intently to the commercials. It has been my experience that the locally-owned geek store has much better prices and better service.

  20. jkipk says:

    It’s funny, but probably the most serious problem here is that, unlike almost everyone else involved, the workers at the cafe probably have NO IDEA what there purpose is supposed to be. They are there to sell electronics, and yet they see there job as "make the food on the ticket". Does anyone ever talk to them about their relationship to thousands of dollars in sales? Probably not.

  21. David Nicholson says:

    Perversely a mistake is also another chance to win over the customer. Of course it’s better if you don’t make one, but if you do and you fix it properly you can improve the customer’s opinion of you.

    Surveys show that people who have had small mistakes fixed well feel better about the supplier than customers who haven’t encountered an error.

  22. Don Wenzel says:

    I can’t under stand how a company as large as Home Depot can treat customers so poorly. I signed my roofing contract on 9-14-05, Home Depot has now installed three roofs on my house and are getting ready to install the fourth one. They pay their contractors as little as possible and that is why they get poor quality contractors. Home Depot does not return phone calls, emails or letters for weeks or never. When you see my web page you can see the distruction they do to peoples lives and property. When you search the internet for "poor customer service from home depot" you can read for days, how do they get away with this?

    Thank you,

    Don Wenzel

    Oxford, Michigan

  23. Johnny says:

    Below is a link to my ultimate anti-Fry’s article. It’s about time somebody exposed this company and I LOVE YOUR SITE!

  24. Katherine says:

    Wow.  I really want a pastrami sandwich with a big helping of stone ground mustard.  (and a pickle.  Dill, preferably)

    I once had a similar experience at Best Buy with the tech support folks.  After they lost my laptop, they tried to get me to sign the ‘everything is fixed’ waiver BEFORE I actually turned it on to check.  I said no, turned it on, and realized that they had a) not fixed the dead pixels, b) not fixed the broken esc key, and c) given it to me without an operating system!!!!

    I was so irate, that I called my boyfriend at the time to come fix the problem because I knew I’d go on a homicidal rampage if I even had to look at any one member of ‘The Geek Squad’.  


  25. I find it irritating, but not surprising, when I get absurdly bad customer service from a business whose

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