Lessons Learned in the Trenches - Part 1

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., copyright 2003

When you ask executives what keeps them up at night, most will say – the people issues - employees and customers. This month’s executive briefing will cover some important lessons in the “people” arena that I’ve learned in just two weeks of opening a new coffee house in the heart of the coffee capital of America. Yes…in the midst of the worst economic conditions in decades my wife and I opened Caffe’ Zingaro – Coffee – Tea – Delectables, in lower Queen Anne in Seattle. What can I say…I’m a diehard entrepreneur and an optimist! So, now I get another way to daily put into action what I’ve learned and continue to learn from you, other sources and now my retail customers and vendors.

Each day I get to test theory in real life – with my own money on the line. Of course, running a consulting business puts theory to the test daily too, but there is nothing like retail, with immediate customer feedback. My employees see how effective they are each time they ring up a customer and they either get a tip or not. No delay in feedback…great service & great product = good tip. Lousy service = no tip. Lousy product & lousy service = no repeat business. So far, business is better than we expected and building. However, I’ve had some experiences with vendors that border on the absurd (should provide you with a knowing chuckle) and have provided great lessons in how to and how not to run a business.

Tell the truth, especially when you are in the wrong:

Most of the equipment we purchased was used (standard operating procedure for restaurateurs). We bought from three different local sellers and even over Ebay from a company in Atlanta. We’ve had only one problem with the equipment. A backroom refrigerator broke down. The local seller (we’ll call him Mort) agreed to fix it pronto. He said he would send someone down to the shop. Two hours later - no one has arrived. I called again. Mort said, “My guy is on the way.” Two hours later - no guy. I called again. “He’s leaving the shop now!” By now I’m more than furious and he knows it. We have milk products that now have to be tossed.

Mort should have told the truth about when he would have someone get to our shop. He should have said, “I’m sorry for the problem, the quickest I can have a guy there is by XX.” Instead he told me what I wanted to hear to get me off his back. Wrong! I now am even more upset with him.

Communicate more when things are going wrong – don’t hide:

In the above example, I called Mort each time. He never once called me to say, “We’re running behind.” The longer I had to wait with no word from Mort the angrier I got. Most people can understand human errors, etc., and most people are pretty forgiving. However, if you don’t communicate with your clients/customers they are likely to hallucinate about what’s going on. When things go wrong, we tend to think the worst. If you keep the communication link open with your client/customers by telling them what you are doing to correct any problems, etc., they are less likely to think the worst and more likely to remain calm & be patient.

Apologize if you make a mistake or cause a problem for a client or customer:

Mort never once said, “I’m sorry for the headache this is causing,” or “I’m sorry the equipment isn’t working.” Instead he continuously responded in a curt and exasperated manner that reeked of “Why are you bugging me?” attitude. Mort finally arrived with his repairman and tried to fix the refrigerator. After spending two hours with no success he finally decided to replace it. And (who could make this up) the replacement broke down. When I arrived to open the store, Sunday, at 6:15 AM the next morning, I found the replacement refrigerator’s internal temperature at 60 degrees. So, I called Mort at 6:30 AM (I had craftily gotten his personal cell phone number from his repairman) and told him to get his rear end out to the store and fix it. He was a bit testy (no surprise). I told him that I was more than testy. He finally offered the closest he could come to an apology by saying that I had a right to be upset. You betcha I did! All the time I’m thinking…this jerked can’t say “I’m sorry.”

I’m a fairly reasonable person and buying used equipment is a risk so, I did expect that we might have some problems. If Mort would have apologized from the get go I would have chalked the incident up as par for the course. The absurdity of the second refrigerator breaking down was laughable, in hindsight. The odds of that happening border on ludicrous. I’m pretty good at managing my attitude in the face of adversity; however, Mort’s bad attitude completely affected my attitude…for the worse. I was not laughing. He has forever altered my opinion of him and his business. If you ever want to buy used restaurant equipment in Seattle, give me a call and I’ll tell you whom you should never buy from and whom you can trust.

Lastly, When it's 4 against 1, say you’re wrong:

We hired a local architect primarily to help us get the building permits through the city bureaucracy in a timely manner. We were only doing a cosmetic makeover and the permitting process is mostly an exercise in tedium. Our architect told us he got the permits and arrived at the site with 4 copies of the building plans and permits and gave them to my wife, the contractor and me. We were all gathered together in one spot. The contractor kept one to be posted in the shop for inspectors to view and we took the remaining three home. A couple weeks pass and it’s time to set up the health department inspection and we ask the architect where we would find that permit because we didn’t see it. He says, look for the health department stamp on the plan we gave the contractor. We look…no stamp and there is none on the other three either. We call the architect, give him the news and he promptly says – you can guess what happens next - “What did you do with the one that did have it?” I tell him that none have the stamp and that he gave us only four plans. He says, “You must have lost the one that did.” I check again with our contractor and my wife and tell him, “You gave us only four and none have the stamp.” He says, “You must have lost the one that did.”

Who could make this up!! He just simply could not admit that something went wrong on his end. 3 to 1 and he still thinks we’re at fault. We sent him back down to the city and they told him they didn’t give him the permit either and….he tells them they did!! Now it’s 4 to 1 and he still can’t admit he made a mistake. Well, we never did find the stamp. Thank god the health department people aren’t jerks and we were able to arrange for and obviously passed the inspection.

Friends…even if we did somehow screw up, when it’s 4 to 1…it time to give up and agree with your customer. Remember, “The customer is always
right!!”

I’m sure I’ll have more teaching tales to tell from the retail world in future editions, in addition to my other thoughts about leadership and management. As always, love to hear your reactions and (a plug from the shameless commerce division) if you want to enjoy great coffee, exotic teas and wonderful pastries and desserts, please stop by.

Caffe’ Zingaro is located at 127 Mercer
- just West and next door to the Seattle Repertory Theater in lower Queen
Anne - corner of Mercer & Warren.
T: 206.352.2861.