Damage Control at Cracker Barrel

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you stress customer service, sometimes things just go wrong.  It happens.  Perfect service can be your goal, but it’s very unlikely to be a reality.

Yesterday I was having lunch at Cracker Barrel.  If you’re not familiar
with Cracker Barrel, it’s a chain of restaurants/gift shops that’s headquartered in Tennessee.  It’s a very homey, folksy kind of place that features things like breakfast all day, chicken-fried steak, chicken and dumplings, and lots of deserts.  They’re definitely not a health food restaurant.  They’re always located along interstate highways, but also near population centers.  They cater to older adults and families. 

You can’t get into the restaurant without going through the "Old Country Store".  There are lots of knick-knacks and tourist stuff.  There’s candy and packaged versions of many of the things they serve in the restaurant, along with seasonal items; all high-margin merchandise.

There’s a CB within walking distance of our office in St. Louis and I eat there every Monday.  Yesterday it was obvious that our waitress was very new.  First, she wasn’t there last Monday and second you could tell she was in the process of learning the job.  She’s probably in her early twenties.  She was a little slow, but good-natured and really seemed to be trying to do a good job.  Unfortunately, she wasn’t doing a good enough job for the couple sitting behind us and the man was very vocal about it, finally reducing the waitress to tears.

To his credit, the manager did his best to placate the couple, but there was no use.  ApparAngryently, prior to yesterday, this guy had never had to wait for anything before.  This was a new experience for him and he didn’t like it one bit.  He left the restaurant still complaining to anyone who would listen.

So far, there’s nothing unusual about this story.  An employee makes a mistake, an irate customer complains, and the manager tries to make it right.  But here’s where it gets good.  Once the customer was gone, the two managers started making the rounds of every table.  "How’s your lunch?"   "Is there anything you need?"   "Can I refill your drinks?"  It’s called damage control.

One thing about Cracker  Barrel is that they have a lot of repeat customers.   Whether you’re like me and eat at the same location often, or if you’re a traveler who looks for the brown and orange sign when it’s meal time, lots of people eat there on a somewhat regular basis.  That brand equity is worth its weight in gold and it’s something that has to be protected at all costs.

I’m sure most, if not all, of the customers who witnessed the incident understood that the customer was a jerk.  But, and this is critical, they also knew that something had happened to trigger the outburst.  His drink hadn’t been refilled fast enough.  Once the problem became evident. there was nothing else the restaurant could have done for the angry customer, but they could sure do something to make sure the rest of us didn’t leave with a bad feeling about the restaurant.  And that’s what they did.  No one left without having been talked to by a manager.  Rather than sending a roomful of customers out the door with a negative impression of their business, we left feeling good about Cracker Barrel.

That’s effective damage control and a good lesson for all of us.  When a customer is angry, they’re seldom quiet.  In fact, some, like the customer in the restaurant, want to make sure everyone within earshot knows that they’ve been wronged.  The WANT to make a scene.  Of course, the best thing for us to do is to avoid that.  If possible, getting the angry customer away from other shoppers is the way to go.  But that’s not always an option.

If there’s an ugly scene, it’s not just important to solve the problem, but we should also ask ourselves, "Who else might be affected by this incident?  What can we do to take care of them as well?"  If we handle it correctly, we might just turn that lemon into lemonade.

Wal*Mart Left Holding the Bag

According to Bloomberg.com, Wal*Mart’s Sam’s Club division and the Italian Fashion Group  Fendi
  have settled a law suit filed by Fendi accusing Sam’s of selling knock-off handbags, wallets, and key chains and claiming the items were authentic in some of its stores.  Sam’s will pay Fendi an undisclosed amount in exchange for Fendi dropping its lawsuit.

According to the suit, Wal*Mart earned millions of dollars selling the bogus leather goods.  A wallet that normally sells for $385.00 was selling at Sam’s for $199.00 

Sam’s has removed all the o"Fendi"ing merchandise from its clubs.  Customers who want to return the items will be given a full refund.

According to Bloomberg, in 1999, Wal*Mart agreed to pay Tommy Hilfiger Corporation $6.4 million when the discounter was found to be selling counterfeit Hilfiger goods in violation of a 1996 court injunction.

Schwartz Jewelry Update

Following up on yesterday’s story about Schwartz Jewelry in Philadelphia, Mr. Schwartz called in to the Beck program this morning.  Since yesterday’s show he’s received calls from all over the country from customers who are longing for the type of personal service that his store offers.  Beck again praised Schwartz for giving service that should be the norm, rather than the exception.

Of course, the call has generated even more free national publicity. And, all because he took the time to help a stranger and didn’t ask for anything in return.

Great story! 

Russell Schwartz Jewelry

Glenn Beck is the host of a syndicated talk radio show, the third most listened-to radio program in the United States.  He’s a conservative commentator, but this has nothing to do with politics so please read on, regardless of your political persuasion.

Beck was in Philadelphia on a speaking tour when his watch band broke.  He asked someone where he could go to get it fixed or replaced and was sent to a big jewelry store on Chestnut Street.  To make a long story short, the clerks in the store were busy talking to each other and treated Beck like something that was stuck on the bottom of their shoes.

Leaving the store, he spotted another smaller store on the other side of the street, William Schwartz Jewelry.  He went in and was greeted by a man with a jeweler’s eye piece and and apron, Russell Schwartz.  Beck showed Schwartz his watch and asked him if he could fix it.  He said he’d try.  He searched through boxes of old watch parts looking for the piece he needed to make the repair, coming up empty.  "Wait", he said, "I’m not done."

He walked Beck down the street to another jewelry store to see if they had the part.  "No, sorry" they said.  Again Schwartz said, "I’m not done."  They went back to his store.  He dug some more, found an old part and took it to his bench where he proceeded to fabricate the part he needed for the repair.  It worked perfectly.

Beck asked how much he owed Schwartz, and he said there was no charge.  It was just an old spare part.  "But you spent 25 minutes!" Beck told him.  "How much do I owe you."

"OK, $5.00."  Beck gave him a fifty dollar bill. 

But, there’s more to the story.  On the wall was a picture of Russell Schwartz with President George W. Bush.  "How did you meet the president," Beck asked.  It turns out that one day one of the President’s aides came into the store to get an emergency repair on his boss’ watch.  He didn’t tell Schwartz who his boss was.  He repaired the watch in minutes and the man left.  Shortly afterwards, the man came back and told Schwartz his boss wanted to meet him.  "OK.  Who’s your boss?" 

"President George Bush."  He met the President, had his picture taken, and was praised by the President of the United States for his excellent customer service.

In a similar situation, Schwartz did some work for a man who turned out to be a hotel concierge.  Later the man returned to the store and said that his client wanted to purchase a 5 carat canary diamond.  Now, I have no idea what a 5 carat canary diamond sells for, but I’m pretty sure  it’s  worth quite a few watch bands.

What’s Schwart’s secret?  He says, "You’ve gotta like doing your job.  It always pays off in the end."

So Russell Schwartz gives good, old-fashioned customer service.  He’s the third-generation owner of William Schwartz Jewelry.  The business started in 1929, not exactly the best year to go into any kind of business.  By giving excellent service he’s gotten the chance to meet a US President.  He’s sold a 5 carat canary diamond.  And he’s gotten more than ten minutes of free air time on the third most listened-to radio program in the country.  Beck has even put a link to Schwartz’ web site on his home page.

The moral of the story is that you never know who might walk into your store, but if you treat every customer as someone special, only good things can follow.

IRS Scam Warning

Your friends at the Internal Revenue Service have issued an alert to taxpayers on the latest version of an email scam.  The email, claiming to be from the IRS, says the recipient is under a criminal probe for submitting a false tax return.  You’re asked to click on a link that contains more information.  In fact the link is a Trojan Horse, a piece of software that can take over your hard drive and allow someone remote access to your computer.

According to the IRS, they never send unsolicited emails or ask for detailed personal or financial information, including PIN numbers, passwords, or similar secret codes for credit cards, banks, or other financial accounts.

If you receive a questionable email that appears to be from the IRS, do not open any attachments or click on any links.  Instead, forward the email to phishing@irs.gov.  (Follow the instructions.)

Other scams involving the IRS include emails with links to a fake IRS web site which asks for bank account numbers, emails claiming that the recipient has a refund coming and asking for bank account information, and one stating that the IRS’ "anti-fraud commission" is investigating the recipient’s tax returns.

Bottom line, no reputable organization ever asks for confidential information over the internet. 

Embracing Change

Warren Shoulberg is editor of HFN Magazine.  In an editorial called Going Out of Business, he writes about the changing furniture industry.  He could just as well have been writing about our industry.  He quotes Barbara Snow, CFO of Leath Furniture, a company that recently closed after being in business for over 100 years.  She said, "The company’s regretful decision comes as a result of unfavorable financial conditions, including the decline in the furniture industry."

As Shoulberg points out, "Last time I checked, people were still
pretty much sitting on sofas and chairs, sleeping on beds and eating at
least some of their meals on tables."  His point being, there has been no decline in the furniture industry, just a re-shuffling of the players. 

The point is that changing and declining are two entirely different things.  In fact, on an individual level, failing to change will almost certainly lead to decline.  As we pointed out here recently (Innovation), change is critical to survival in today’s business world.

Everyone likes to stay in their comfort zone.  There’s great security in sticking with what you know.  Ironically, staying in one place is really the enemy of security.  If we stay put, our competitors are going to move forward, leaving us behind.

Shoulberg points out that furniture retailers are lucky to have a basic product which will never become obsolete.  We can say the same thing.  There are always innovations in our products, but the basic item stays the same.  We’re not selling buggy whips, or eight-track tape players.  While we operate in mature industries, they’re not static industries.  There’s always going to be a market for what we sell and there are always going to be opportunities for good merchants to make a good living.

The important thing is that we embrace change for the opportunities that it presents, not fear it, or worse, pretend it isn’t happening.

Older Workers

In a recent post, Re-careering, we discussed the growing trend of older adults to re-career rather than retire.  Here’s an interesting article that illustrates the point. 

Dorothy Evans, age 92, works 20 hours per week behind the counter at a Dinuba, CA McDonald’s.  Mrs. Evans started working at McDonald’s in 1993, at age 78."She is one of the hardest workers we have.  She has more energy than some of the 16-year-olds we hire." says Betty Tores, owner of the  restaurant.  "And, she is so loyal and responsible.  How many people do you find like her these days?"

A 2006 report by the MetLife Mature Market Institute stated that 72
percent of people age 66-70 choose to work to stay "active and

Pete Wilson, age 70, a retired insurance executive works part-time to help pay for his hobby; power lifting.  He says he likes "the camaraderie of the work place and trying something different."

As the baby boomers reach retirement age, many want to continue to be productive, earn a little extra money, and stay active without the pressure of a full-time job.  The flexible hours of a part-time gig allow them to travel, play golf, or do volunteer work.  Meanwhile, their new employers gain decades of experience and a work ethic that younger workers may not have.  In a retail environment, that experience often gives them instant credibility with customers, especially older customers.  And,  like Mrs. Evans, many older workers have tremendous energy.

Sidebar:  The MetLife site mentioned above has some very good information for older adults.  If you or someone you care about is nearing retirement age, it’s worth a look.

Small Business Job Machine

Inc.com reports today that businesses with less than 50 employees are generating new jobs faster than their larger counterparts.  According to Automatic Data Processing, small businesses added 58,000 new jobs in May , almost 50% more than the 39,000 new jobs created by larger businesses.

According to the report, May was the sixth straight month when smaller firms accounted for the vast majority of new jobs.