Pearl Valley Country Club, Val de Vie Estate in the Western Cape. Picture: SUPPLIED
Pearl Valley Country Club, Val de Vie Estate in the Western Cape. Picture: SUPPLIED

The customer being a business’s most important asset seems to be a truism that too many people have forgotten. The misses in customer service seem to range from the glaring to the much less obvious. But at whatever level, all reveal a real lack of understanding about what should be happening to make customer interactions effective.

I recently had an appalling service experience when buying a new laptop. The short version of the story was that the company made a horse’s tail of what should have been a CR 101 interaction. Instead of apologising in writing for the misses (which were very real) and offering me a token of their appreciation for my taking the time to detail the issues in the form of a voucher or a similar token, the company’s customer service manager said that “this is not what we do”.

What they did eventually was to refund the sale, thereby losing R21,000 worth of business and a customer of 25 years. The apology and a voucher for say R2,000 would have brought me back into the shop to spend an estimated R5,000 more and they would have kept the original sale while retaining a customer.

To explore some of the monsters and myths around customer service, I am joined by Damian Wrigley, the country club GM at the iconic Jack Nicklaus signature course at Val De Vie in the Western Cape.

JC: Odds are that there are likely to be more bad customers than vendors, but in the context that a customer is any business’s most valuable asset, some of the misses are mind-boggling. So what is Pearl Valley’s stance in a management sense in this key area?

DW: We believe there are no bad customers, but there will be occasional instances where customers, with unrealistic expectations, take their frustrations out on club employees and in our sector, conflict resolution is a skill that can be tested regularly. My sense is that if you treat your members like royalty and your visitors like members, you will please most people.

JC: Would you agree that there are both structural and service elements in finding the best way to manage customer expectations?

DW: Definitely, and having the correct blend of services and activities in the mix is key, as are well trained staff in these areas to manage the direct engagement with the customer.

JC: Last year I recounted the experience where a golf estate’s lifestyle and customer-centric approach fell flat on its face at the first hurdle by refusing me the option to, as a non-drinker, substitute the alcoholic beverage offered as part of a lunchtime special for a soft drink.

DW: These types of mistakes are just rather silly. In this case, the special’s structure was wrong and when you combine this with service staff that are not empowered to think on their feet and be creative, the result impacts poorly on the waiter while detracting from the customer experience.

JC: Substituting items on menus seems to cause real problems. I recently enjoyed an excellent lunch at a golf club in KZN, only to see on the bill that my request for mashed potato (an existing menu option) instead of chips with my fish showed a charge for extra mash.

DW: Structural misses with menus can leave customers with a bad taste (excuse the pun) and should never happen, especially as substituting in SA is big. If it becomes a “free for all”, then it can mess up recipes and pricing. But in your example, mash, fries or potato wedges should simply fall within accepted changes. But the result was a problem at the root of which is an incorrectly structured menu.

JC: In terms of the mash, I was given a convoluted explanation about stock controls, etc, but eventually interrupted the manager by pointing out that management’s back-end issues should not be allowed to spoil my enjoyment of a meal. I suggested that a restructure of the till-point software and menu would allow for mash, chips or salad to accompany the fish.

DW: Perfect, and from a management perspective, adopting an inflexible approach to these types of requests makes no sense when trying to create good customer experiences. Substitutions can slow the kitchen, especially at peak times, so there must be a balance between flexibility and productivity, while regular menu checks will show what needs to become permanent changes. Clients ordering items that are not standard substitutions should expect upcharges, but there should also be controls that allow for flexibility.

JC: This all has echoes of the “fried or boiled” airline food era in the not-so-distant past.

DW: Yes and it amazes me that plane passengers still accept the chicken or beef options, but when they disembark and walk into a restaurant, options become the expected thing. We custom order most things and this is a sign of the times and we need to adapt to it, because if we do not, we will simply lose business to those who do.

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