The Customer is Not Always Right

It is not the employer who pays the wages. Employers only handle the money. It is the customer who pays the wages.

— Henry Ford

If you do build a great experience, customers tell each other about that. Word of mouth is very powerful.
— Jeff Bezos, CEO Amazon

Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile industry in the United States, and later much of what he did, in terms of automation, was copied all over the world in places like Japan and Germany. Ford was right when he said our customers pay or wages.

He was able to start and run a huge car company in Ford by not only putting the customer first, but also training management and employees to do so as well.

Walmart’s creator Sam Walton said it best: “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.” To this day it’s Walmart’s practice to put customer as king, maintaining the lowest prices by paying employees very little. An organization can write whatever they want in their bylaws and vision statements, but the market and customers will decide in the long term if that organization is fit to survive or not. Customers are always going to by the kingmakers, and they will always be the ones to find greener pastures and walk away from an organization when that organization stops listening.

But is the customer always right? The answer is no. The customer is not always right. I will give three examples when the customer is wrong. I will also talk about 3 situations where I have personally asked certain customers to leave. When customers are threatening the safety and happiness of your own person or that of your crew, you are well within your rights to kick them out of your establishment. But I will also dig a bit deeper and explain why this mentality that “the customer is always right” not only lowers morale in many employees of the fast food and fast-casual industry of which we are a part, but it also threatens to lower quality standards. So without further hesitation, here are three situations where the customer is not right at all:

  • When the customer is rude to your staff, managers, or the owner. If I walk into an establishment, and I am faced with the privilege of meeting the owner, that in and of itself is not only a privilege but an opportunity for me to be behaving in my best self. After all, I am in his or her house of business. I am on their property, and often it is rare to come across not only management but the owner. Most owners are very nice to their patrons and go out of their way to be pleasant, accommodating, and gracious to their customers. I have met hundreds of people at our stores over the years, and I can say that about 99% of our customers are truly some of the best people in the world. I have given away free T-shirts, mugs, free sides and sandwiches, free drinks, and so on. Not because people can’t afford it and not because I wanted to make a big deal out of giving away promotional materials of trivial value, but because I truly love and care for our customers. Plus it’s fun and sporadic, often making people laugh and smile, and always people walk away with a greater impression of me and the brand I represent.

Unfortunately, however, every so often I will come across some extremely rude and disparaging individuals that have personally been rude to me. In one case I was in our Glendale branch a few years ago when a woman walked into the store. I was standing beside the cash register, speaking to one of our friendly cashiers about the menu. As soon as she came in, she asked if I was the owner. Now I hate this question for many reasons, not least of which being that I feel that some kind of complaint or some other negative reaction or question might come next. I also don’t like being called “the owner” because well, I am not the only owner. We are a family business, and as such, it has many owners. My mother and brothers are the owners as well. Plus I feel that, in my heart, and while this may not be true technically, I’ve always felt that the managers and employees are part owners too, because at the end of the day we are all in this together and this is the home for all of us. We all get bread from this one sacred place, if you will. And so for these reasons and more I hate when someone asks,”Are you the owner?” It also usually follows with silly questions about trademarks and franchises and such that I usually don’t like talking about.

Of all created comforts, God is the lender; you are the borrower, not the owner.
— Ernest Rutherford

Anyway, I was polite to this lady and I said said, “Mam I am not the owner but one of the owners, how can I help you?” And this lady preceded to just yell at me and try to embarrass me in front of the customers and the employees. I asked her to calm down. What was the culprit of her anger towards me? She said that the air conditioning inside was too powerful and that it was directly on the cashiers, and that they were freezing. Now right away, having been doing this for over 25 years, and often being on the cash register myself I immediately knew she was wrong. You see, the cashier area is directly adjacent to our shawerma grilling machines, which are vertical broilers. As anyone that has ever worked near these spits knows, the temperature within the direct vicinity is usually very hot. We keep the air conditioning running most of the time, even in winter, to help keep the cashiers cool.

But none of this was her concern anyway, she was a customer, not a health inspector nor was she my supervisor. When she would not calm down and kept yelling, almost to the top of her voice, I calmly asked our cashiers to refund her money, and before she could take her roasted chicken home I took the food back. I politely asked her to leave, and I also asked her to please not return. She was immensely disruptive, rude, and that kind of behavior is not only bad for business but is bad for morale as well, and not just for me but also other employees.

In the second situation we had a situation in Anaheim. I was at our Anaheim store when a male customer in his 40’s approached. He too, was yelling at the top of his lungs, complaining about one particular food item he deemed too expensive. I kindly asked him to lower his voice, and when he did not I asked him to leave as well. Because you see, often it is the market that determines a lot of our food prices. There are many determining factors, such as drought, of which there is a huge one in California right now the likes of which has not been seen for generations. Now can we take the ocean water and use desalination plants? Sure we can, and Saudi Arabia has already been doing that for many years. We have (supposedly) better technology then them, so why are we not able to do the same? The answer is we can, and on a larger scale, using clean technologies like solar power to heat the water. Because as you know, we have plenty of sun, plenty of water in the ocean. Anyway that matter is best left for a completely different kind of book. But to get back to the point food costs can skyrocket when there is a heavy drought. Food costs are also highly susceptible to competition costs, the cost of gas and fuel, stability and sustainability within the poultry and beef industries, the cost of grain …etc. What we do is boil all of this down, look at what the competition is doing as well, factor in all these costs and do a price that is usually not too high, but not too low.

My philosophy always has been, and will continue to be, to do our best for a certain kind of customer. I truly believe at Zankou Chicken, or goal should not be to try and attract everyone. Our goal, and your goal, should be to find our target audience and specifically (and only) cater to that niche. Our niche happens to be upscale families and individuals that love fresh, healthy food that is also convenient. Our customers are not the kind of people that care about price as the determining factor that weighs most heavily on where they take their families to eat. I’ve always argued for this because I truly believe that huge companies like McDonald’s and Taco Bell will always beat us in price.

Why? The answer is simple:

  • Economies of scale. McDonald’s serves around 70 million customers daily in 119 countries across 35,000 outlets. We can’t beat that. We should not even try to beat that because we are not the same food genre as them and we don’t cater to the same kind of consumer.
  • You should know your target audience. For us serving our clientele better is a top priority. So in that sense, if someone comes in expecting to pay $2 for a taco and we don’t have that item, or they expect a sandwich to cost $3 and it doesn’t, well that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing because it gives us more room, more time and efficiency to keep cooking the world’s best quality Mediterranean food for the customers that are willing to pay for it. A shorter line and better service for these customers is a great thing for us.
  • 99% of your problems come from 1% of your customers. This is true for almost any type of business. If you are reading this and you run a trucking business, a factory, or an accounting business you know this is also true for you. 99% of our headaches almost always comes from about 1-2% of our customers. These are the customers that always complain about price, always seem to have something wrong with their plate or sandwich, and /or they just always seem to be unhappy for some reason.

Now please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying the occasional bad service or bad food won’t happen, because of course it does. Fixing those issues and keeping customers happy is not only our job, but ultimately it’s the right thing to do. But imagine if you have a situation where you have a customer, let’s call him Nick.

Nick comes in every Monday and orders a half chicken plate. While he is ordering he makes some crude remarks about woman, brags about sleeping with prostitutes (out loud so that everyone can hear him), and he wants free drinks. If he doesn’t get a free drink he complains and wants to eat something (anything) free. He complains about the price, then he complains about the food not being cooked right. He does this every Monday. Every Monday. What would you do in this situation?

If you said you would fire Nick as a customer that would be correct. You have to fire Nick as a customer because not doing so will lower morale. Your cashiers will feel unhappy, uncomfortable, and that may ultimately effect their performance due to their stress level caused by Nick (or other like-minded customer). Firing bad customers is good business. It gives you the freedom, power, and ability to serve your awesome customers that love you and are happy to pay you what you deserve.

The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto principle and named after the economist who developed it, recognizes that in any group, 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the participants. In the restaurant business, that means 20 percent of customers account for 80 percent of sales, while another 20 percent account for 80 percent of headaches and issues. I have simplified that in the example above by saying 99% because for us and in our business, it’s not 20% of the customers but about 1-2% that can be skimmed off the top. Again, most of our customers are the best in the world. And Zankou fans are world-world-renowned for being so loyal and awesome, so in my opinion they are the ones that will benefit most from this “culling”. Our time and effort can be spent on them; as it should.

Here are two more situations where the “Customer is not always Right.”

  • When the customer has a fight with another customer. This is both funny and sad, but a quick YouTube search and you will find many altercations in fast food establishments that occur between patrons. You have to find the culprit and make sure they don’t return. The safety of your customers takes priority.
  • When the customer is not a good fit for your business. Imagine a customer that comes in and asks for tacos. You calmly state you don’t have it. They come back and ask for it again and again, and when you’d decline they take the fight to social media…etc. There are people out there that just don’t take no for an answer. And this is in every industry. I am not talking about minor changes or additions that fit in with your company’s mission statement and value’s statement. I’m talking about a radical change that could alter the way you do business. You don’t have to do any such changes, and you certainly don’t have to take crap from people that know nothing about your business or industry. It’s well within your right to fire that customer.

Poisonous people do not deserve your time. To think otherwise is masochistic.”
― Timothy Ferriss

Firing these bad customers, the worst 1-2%, if you will, creates room for the organization to serve the best customers, making their experience all the better. Faster food, roomier dining area, cleaner bathrooms, and an overall better experience per visit will occur when you fire your worst customers. In addition to all this, your best customers, you know, the ones that will happily pay you what you deserve for the amazing product or service you are providing them, will have to wait in shorter lines and have an overall less stressful experience.   It is essential to create the best experience possible for your high paying, high value customers. For all these reasons and more, it is essential to us to be proactive in firing our worst customers. If you are reading this book right now and you feel the same way, even though you don’t own a restaurant and are in some other field, please realize this applies to you as well. Whether you are a motivational speaker or you fix refrigerators for a living, this great philosophy will serve you well. Take it with you, and may it be in your arsenal of great philosophies and traditions you live by for the rest of your life, and just as it has served me well it will serve you will, I promise. Besides all this remember that the worst customers are bad for morale and decrease overall cost of the businesses they visit while increasing deficiency.

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