“This can’t be good,” I said to myself as I approached the off-site airport parking lot. It was so jam-packed with cars I couldn’t even get through the gate.
As I approached the valet area — which looked like the scene from a college football tailgate — the attendant looked over at me and yelled, “We’re full.”
“Yeah, I see that,” I replied, trying to disguise the anger in my voice. “I have a reservation.”
“Sorry. Don’t know what to tell you,” he replied while walking away.
I was stunned. I had been a loyal customer for seven years, and had never experienced any problems. In fact, I had even recommended them to friends. But none of that mattered. The lot was inexplicably full, and so I was out of luck. Period. The reservation I had made, it turned out, was completely superfluous. I came up with a quick plan B and turned around. But before I could leave the lot, I saw another car pull in, and so I motioned for the driver to roll down the window and told him what happened.
“Are you kidding me?” he asked.
“Nope,” I said.
“I guess I’ll try one of their other lots. Don’t they have two other locations?” he said.
“I think so, but I’m taking my chances somewhere else.”
I decided I’d rather park in the airport’s snow-covered economy lot than deal with a company that shuts customers out with no explanation and no notice. I had to hear from another frustrated traveler that they had two other lots (although whether they had availability was anyone’s guess). And as far as the lack of notification, the company had my phone number and email address; it would’ve only taken seconds to inform me that the lot was closed. At the very least, they could have put up a sign informing customers that they were full and listing the locations of their other sites. Instead, they did nothing.
And as much as I wanted to scream and yell at the attendant, I couldn’t blame him. If the company loses a few customers, does it really impact him? Not at all. I don’t fault him one bit. I blame the higher-ups, because either there are no policies in place for how to handle overflow and redirect customers, or the staff hasn’t been trained properly. Either way, it’s a major fail.
And then, I thought, what if that hadn’t been me waiting to park in my reserved spot? What if it had been a member of the executive team? They would’ve been appalled.
It made me think of a show called Restaurant Stakeout in which Willie Degel, owner of a NYC-based steakhouse, goes undercover to help restaurant owners figure out why their businesses are struggling. “If you can’t see the problem, you can’t solve the problem,” he says in his thick Queens accent.
Through the use of hidden cameras, Degel is able to show entrepreneurs why they are failing, with the most common problems being waste, mismanagement of staff, and poor customer service.
They’re all serious sins, but in this age of social media, where even the smallest complaint zips through cyberspace in milliseconds, the one that can get a business owner in the biggest trouble is offering poor customer service. If one person has a bad experience, then writes a post on Facebook, Tweets about it, or does it the old-fashioned way by telling friends in person, it’s as if they’ve all shared the same bad experience. And what started out as a little problem has snowballed into a crisis.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be quite so catastrophic. A bad experience can be nipped in the bud by the smallest gesture. For example, if Degel hears customers complain about a long wait, he tells the owner to approach the table, apologize for the poor service, and offer a free drink or dessert. See the problem, then solve it.
Because the thing is, it doesn’t take a whole lot to earn forgiveness, but you do have to do something. By intervening quickly, you can defuse a potentially bad situation and create a little bit of good will that can help keep the customers you have, and possibly even recruit more.
On the other hand, if you do nothing, that’s exactly what you’re going to get.