There was a salad restaurant near my old office that I used to frequent for lunch. The owner, Frank, was a hard-working, service-oriented man. His staff would mix the salads to order, putting in grilled chicken, or pasta, or whatever else you might want. Customers were always greeted with warm smiles.
Frank eventually opened a second restaurant a few towns over and began to oversee it, so he left his son—a tall, intimidating, unhappy-seeming man—in charge of the salad place. Frank’s son never looked like he wanted to be there, and although he was always as perfectly polite as anyone could be (in a robotic sort of way), it was easy to imagine that there was something unpleasant smoldering underneath.
There had always been a daily special, in which a specific salad was marked down a dollar or two. On one particular day that I stopped in, the special involved mixed-greens with a scoop of tuna salad on top.
I was enjoying my own lunch when an elderly woman came to the counter and asked if she could just have the special with dry tuna “flakes”, one of the regular options, instead of the scoop of tuna salad, because she was allergic to mayonnaise.
Politely, Frank’s son said no. The woman told him that she couldn’t afford a full-priced salad that day and tried to reason with him, suggesting that the tuna flakes actually cost him less, because there was no labor—or mayonaise—involved. Untouched, Frank’s son turned her away.
I guess I couldn’t help myself. I tentatively approached him at the counter.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” I began. “I consult with businesses that are trying to grow and I’m a big fan of your dad…I’m just curious why you didn’t give that woman the tuna flakes for the price of the special.”
“The special is tuna salad!” he exclaimed, with a smirk that revealed a tiny crack in his “polite” demeanor.
“But, you know, the tuna flakes do actually cost you less,” I pointed out, “and it might have won you a really happy customer—maybe someone new.”
“Yeah,” he replied, “But the next person will want to substitute chicken, and then steak.” An angrier edge crept into his voice. “Where does it stop? And besides, NOBODY ASKED YOU, DID THEY?”
His armor of politeness had fallen completely away. And two customers were lost to Frank’s great little salad restaurant that day. As much as I enjoyed the food, and Frank, I took my lunch breaks elsewhere from then on…
I never did get to tell Frank why I stopped coming to his place. Surely, he must have known that his son didn’t quite belong there. I didn’t need to tell him that. Besides, nobody asked me, did they?
But if they had, I might have explained it this way:
Surveys show that only 1 in 27 unhappy customers or clients will ever tell you about their disappointing experience. That means that if you’ve had just one complaint, there are likely 26 other clients who were also disappointed, but never told you. 10 complaints means 270 people might have been made unhappy by a similar situation. At 100 complaints, it’s probably too late.
If you have just one complaint, you should thank the client who was bold enough to bring it to your attention, and you should begin immediately to investigate whether there’s any problem with your service that you can fix.