Your customers are silently judging you right now.

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If, as a company, you aren't constantly thinking about how your customers experience your brand, you're headed for rough waters. It isn't just about manufacturing cool cars or cooking delicious food or having the most comfortable beds in the industry. Your brand, your reputation and your business are built as an all-encompassing cluster of elements that either make your customers love you, hate you, or not care.

Yesterday, I wrote about the hospitality industry and pitched the standard hotel (downtown L.A.) against the Sheraton Anaheim. For a quick recap:

The Standard: $99/night. Fantastic service. Wonderful and fun experience. Can't wait to stay there again.

The Sheraton Anaheim: $200/night. Terrible service. Boring and stale. Will never stay there again.

The difference: One hotel took the time to craft a unique and very cool experience for its guests and was smart enough to do so for under a C-note. The other charged me twice as much to swipe my credit card and park me in a boring room.

New vs. Old.

Clever vs. uninspired.

WOM worthy vs. Clueless.

I'm not saying that customers always want to be wowed. But you know... at least don't antagonize them.

Case in point: Il Capo Italian Restaurant and olive oil Company - The worst dining experience of my life. (And that's saying something because an Egyptian kitchen onced try to pass boiled donkey for lamb to its guests - including yours truly, and it was better than this.)

I'll tell you the story of the Egyptian donkey in a minute. Right now, let's focus on Il Capo, because its monumental failures on every level are a lot more fun to talk about:

The first thing you should know about Il Capo is that it sits up against "The Vagabond Inn", which kind of sets the mood right off the bat.

The second thing you should know about Il Capo is that it pretends to be an Italian restaurant.

Okay... to steal a big fat page from the book of Bill Maher, here are the "new rules" for Il Capo and any restaurant or business out there who wants to... well, stay in business:

Rule #1: Hire a good chef. (When your core staff isn't qualified, you're screwed.)

Rule #2: If you are going to ask your bus boys to be waiters, train them to be waiters. Don't just expect them to figure it out as they go along. It isn't fair to them, and it isn't fair to your customers. This is where management skills come in handy. (Train and nurture your customer service staff.)

Rule #3: Repeat after me - "Attention to detail is crucial". For example: wine glasses with the imprint of another guest's lips aren't "clean". Forks and knives with old dry food residue on them aren't clean either. This isn't a corner you can afford to cut, especially when you're charging what you are for your meals. (Details will make you or break you. Your choice.)

Rule #4: If you put veal on the menu, learn how to cook it. (Know your product. Know your business. Duh.)

Rule #5: Don't boil veal. It makes it tough, chewy, and curly-looking. (Put yourself in your customer's place every once in a while. Look at your business from the outside in. Don't assume that what you're doing inside your little corporate bubble is going to work. Heck, don't assume anything.)

Rule #6: If you are going to use canned vegetables and jarred sauces, at least try to do something to them so it isn't so obvious that you've put absolutely no work into your product. (Take the time to integrate every element of your business into your brand experience. Make your product stand out. Don't... sell someone else's junk as your own. That's just pointless.)

Rule #7: When a wine is skunky, don't tell your customers that there's nothing wrong with it. We're not lying, and we're not stupid. (Never, ever, ever argue when it comes to quality. Ever. Just take it back and offer a replacement. Preferably a little better than the original, just to score some points.)

Rule #8: Waiting an hour for shoe leather and canned greens is unacceptable. (A. Make customers wait long enough, and they'll leave. This isn't 1906 anymore. Nobody has time to wait and wait and wait. B. If you're going to make them wait, at least make sure that what they're waiting for will be worth their while.)

Rule #9: As the manager of a restaurant, don't waste another twenty minutes ARGUING with every other guest when they complain about the food, the slow service, and your poor response.
(If there's a problem, do what you can to fix it or make it right. Not because you're being forced to, but because it's the right thing to do. Don't ever make the customer pay for YOUR mistake.)

Rule #10: When you agree to do something, like, say, give your angry customers 50% off their meal, don't renig on the deal ten minutes later. (Keep your promises. If you don't, you're a liar.)

The Manager @ 9:37pm: "Okay, fine. Half off. How's that? 50% off the total. Is that fair? Okay. Done."

The manager @ 9:46pm: "Um... I made a couple of calls, and the best I can do is a gift certificate for the value of your meal."

Huh?! A couple of calls to whom? Don Corleone? Once you agree to settle the dispute in one way, don't change your tune later. It's just lame, unprofessional and... ugh... slimy.

Oh, and by the way, giving a gift certificate to a group of business people whom you know are only in town for the weekend is the epitome of slime. We would have fared better if you had given us all a stick of gum for our troubles.

But no worries. We settled the issue in our own fun way:

Note to the manager of Il Capo:

Thank you for the $250 gift certificate. Though it did nothing to correct the horrible two and a half hours we wasted in your "restaurant" last Friday, and we will thankfully be unable to endure another meal from your "kitchen", we did, however put it to good use.

While in your pleasant city, we noticed that many of your residents were homeless. As luck would have it, we happened to run into a very nice but destitute young man just outside your restaurant on our way out, and gave him your generous gift certificate. We suggested to him that he should invite some of his less fortunate friends and treat them to a fine Italian meal in your establishment next weekend. We've taken the liberty of making reservations for him so he won't be turned around at the door. We've also given him the contact information of a fantastic civil rights attorney in case he should ever need her services.

Please extend every courtesy to our guests when they should choose to come by. I hope it will warm your heart to know that your professionalism and generosity will earn Il Capo some kudos within the less-fortunate-than-us community in the Anaheim area. It is my most sincere wish that our guests will become staunch advocates of your "restaurant" and will recommend you to all of their friends for as long as you are in business.

Best regards,

Table 8

Rule #11: Don't screw with your customers. (Ultimately, customers have the power. Not you. Don't mess with them.)

So, to recap our experience at the soon to close Il Capo:

Bland decor.
Boring and overpriced menu.
Dirty glasses and silverware.
Poorly trained staff.
Terrible chef.
Horrible food.
Ridiculously long wait.
Skunky wines.
A free 20 minute argument with a lazy and dishonest jerk posing as a manager.

Can a restaurant actually get negative stars?

To put it all in perspective, here's the 30-second little "donkey-for-dinner" story from my 1984 adventures in Egypt (which, believe it or not, scores well above Il Capo when it comes to customer satisfaction):

Day 1 (pm): Tourist bus hits donkey. Donkey dies. Donkey gets carted off on the back of a truck. The donkey's very badly broken leg is burned into my impressionable brain.

Day 2 (am): While having breakfast on our river boat, I watch supplies being carried from the pier to the galley. Four guys struggle to carry a very heavy stretcher onto the boat. Big mound hidden under a blanket. Dangling from the side: the donkey's broken leg... still attached to the rest of the poor dead animal.

Day 2 (pm): The dinner menu is changed to "veal stew".

True story.

So yes, Il Capo was worse. Wanna know why? Because nobody expects a 5-star meal on an old Egyptian river boat. Because you're not paying $30 a head for veal marsala. Because the waiters are courteous and professional. Because if your complain to the maitre d'hotel about how chewy your "veal" is, he apologizes, offers you a nice bottle of wine for your troubles and explains that meat isn't always great in this part of the world. Because you're in Egypt and the rules are a little different than they are in the US. Because you don't know for sure that what you're eating isn't really veal.

At least, there's an effort made to make your experience as memorable and positive as possible. For them, meat is meat. Donkey, veal, beef... in a stew, it's all the same. They can't afford to let meat go to waste. The difference there is cultural. They really aren't trying to rip you off.

Okay, on to some positive experiences:

My last dining experience in California was much better. If you ever get a chance to fly through LAX, walk out of the main terminal and look for this structure (right next to the control tower):

Walk to it and take the elevator up to the "Encounter" restaurant. The elevator ride alone is worth the trip: The ceiling lights up and the Star Trek-esque 60's inspired space opera music that comes on is a really funny touch. (see left of the page.)

Once upstairs, you'll be treated to very friendly service, an incredible view of L.A.'s skyline, front row seats to of one of the world's most famous landing strips, a fantastic menu, and a very unique and WOM-worthy dining experience.

Images copyright 2005 Olivier Blanchard

The decor is right out of an Austin Powers flick: (I know... I detect a pattern. Shhh.) It's half Star Trek (the original series), half Moonraker. Not what you'd expect right up against an airport. Again, I expected to pay a lot more for my meal than I did, but the prices were very reasonable, the food came fast, and it was delicious. (The tuna tartare is top notch.)

What did these guys do right?

1) They built a super cool restaurant within walking distance of an international airport terminal.

2) They put crazy music and lights in the elevator, just to get you in the right mood before you even step through their doors for a complete immersive experience.

3) They can seat you immediately.

4) There isn't a bad table anywhere. The view is always fantastic.

5) The menu is fun and the prices are perfect.

6) The waiters are fast and friendly.

7) The restaurant is so cool that even if the food were average, you'd still want to tell all of your friends about it.

8) It's unique, and being there makes you feel like you're enjoying something very special.

9) Oh yeah, I almost forgot... nobody argued with me there.

So here's the little lesson of the day:

The minute a customer access your website, calls your toll-free number, walks into one of your locations or opens a box with your mark printed on it, the experience begins. This isn't something you can leave to chance. You have to think about every little detail. You have to know what will make your customers smile and what will make them frown. You have to anticipate that there will be problems and that customers will look to you to fix these problems for them. How you deal with these situations is as much a part of the experience as anything else. Perhaps more so.

If a customer leaves angry, you will never see them again. They will drag your name in the dirt, and your reputation within their sphere of influence will be destroyed. For every customer you lose, they take perhaps ten more with them. Twenty. A hundred. Possibly more. Families. Communities. Corporations. You never know the impact that one person's negative campaign against you will have. Ultimately, nobody wins. Your business loses revenue and gets bad publicity. Your customer leaves angry and frustrated. It's just bad business.

Crafting a positive customer experience isn't rocket science. Mostly, it's about attention to details and about showing that you care. That's it. It is never about going the extra mile. The extra mile concept is a myth. It's more like going the extra inch: A twist of lemon in a glass instead of a wedge. An extra two seconds to call a customer by her name. An extra three calories burned to produce a friendly smile. An extra thirty seconds to upgrade a frustrated guest to a better room or a better table just because they had to wait longer than they should have. A friendly "sure, let me do that for you" instead of a "No, you'll need to take this piece of paper to the third floor and fill out a request form."

It doesn't have to be about flat screen TVs above the urinals and Champagne fountains in the atrium. Most of the time, it's simply about treating customers with respect, kindness and care. People just want to be taken care of. They don't want to have to deal with rules and bureaucracy and disappointment. They just want to have a pleasant experience and then have fun telling their friends about it.

Listen to your customers. Get to know them. I mean... really. Not just through online surveys. Actually sit down with them. Buy them a drink. Find out what they're about. What they like and dislike. What they'd like to see you do a little better. Say "yes" to them more. Make it impossible for them not to love your products, your services, your brand. Make them excited about doing business with you. Their ideas might actually save you money. You just won't know until you've talked to enough of them.

You can do it.

Really, you can.

And you should.

Okay, I've rambled enough for one day. Go have some fun or something.

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