Friday, October 26, 2012

Tales from the Customer Service Crypt

Starbucks' Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate
Foodies love to think about what they're going to eat and drink way before the actual moment of ingestion. Could be because they love to think about their favorite hobby, and if you only think about what you're eating and drinking while eating and drinking it, the whole pleasurable event is over way too soon. In my opinion, that's why all roads leading to the tasting moment also contribute to a foodie's bliss.

In an episode of “Top Chef” this year, host/producer Tom Colicchio said, "People come to a restaurant for food, but they come back for service." How true! Customer service is a huge and often taken for granted part of any buying experience, whether the buyer is a foodie or not. When there are bumps in the road to acquiring what a person can't wait to taste, that leaves a lingering malaise and can result in a customer lost.

It's only a few days until Halloween. What better time, then, to share a few scary tales from the customer service crypt. The scary-meter below refers to when I, as customer, realized a particular business was scaring me with its cluelessness and/or lack of sanity with regard to basic customer service.

Tale #1 (a little scary)

Two Saturdays ago before a Pilates class in Echo Park—a still new-to-me trendy nearby 'hood—I Google-mapped breakfast spots. Delilah's Bakery looked really good, so I parked close to Delilah's which meant I'd have to walk a little extra to Pilates (in Los Angeles, that's the scary part of this story). When I got to the place it wasn't open. A gate was locked over the front door and the outdoor seats were chained to the side. Confused, I looked at the hours painted on the front window: "Wed - Sun, 8:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m." So I quickly calculated that this time and day indeed fell into the parameters of the place's supposed openness. Yet they were closed, with no mention of this on their website and no sign on-site saying they were closed or on vacation. And so, in this hipster neighborhood I had to walk even farther (more scary!) to get to the next coffee shop, a place called Chango and it was just fine.

The Saturday after I drove directly to the Pilates studio after driving past Delilah's at 11:00 a.m. Delilah's was closed again and still no sign. This time I noticed a second incongruity: painted on the door in white was "Cash Only" underneath two Visa and Mastercard stickers. Suddenly I felt like Ingrid Bergman in "Gaslight." I mean, come on, are you open on Saturday or not? Do you accept cash only or not?? And I'm never going to find out either, because they lost me for good. Maybe the hipsters who live nearby know all the answers to these cryptic riddles at Delilah's, but I live in Ktown.

Tale #2 (very scary)

A new pizza restaurant opened near my office at USC, so a bunch of us went there for lunch. After finishing our entrees—the empty plates of which were left on the table through the dessert course, which qualifies as our fair warning—we all decided to have gelato for dessert. The unique flavors on offer sounded so delicious that no one could decide on just one flavor, though since this dessert was described as having two scoops per order, we all ordered two different flavors each.

Eventually a harried server came out to deliver all the gelato, and my jaw dropped to the floor when I saw that each of us were receiving TWO desserts: one dish with two scoops of one flavor, and one dish with two scoops of the other flavor! Four scoops total, two desserts placed before each of us (ca-ching!). I tapped the over-friendly hostess who was always bothering standing by our table to ask what the heck. Has anyone in their lives had to explain to a restaurant that a person ordering two different flavors of ice cream in a two-scoop dessert means they're still ordering one dessert? And since when does a restaurant take the liberty of deciding that they’re going to charge a table of eight for 16 desserts without a word?

There were questions the server could have asked to confirm. Or the person scooping 16 desserts for a table of eight could have confirmed. And if there was a no-splitting of flavors policy, maybe they could have mentioned that. But I guess I'm making the unfair assumption that this place knew things about normal food service practices. In any case, given the chance we all would have chosen one dessert. And because we’re located in polite Southern California, no one complained about this ridiculous padding of the bill. But I was appalled and still laugh aloud like Vincent Price at the end of "Thriller" whenever I think of this scary tale.

Tale #3 (the scariest!)

Ah autumn, a time for crisp, cool air and pumpkin spice and that brilliant concoction Starbucks debuted last year around this time: the salted caramel hot chocolate.

I loved the drink so much last year that once I realized it was "that time again" (which happened last week the moment I left balmy LA and landed in chillier San Fran), I ran to a store to get me some. In a Mission St. store, I ordered a salted caramel hot chocolate and took my place in line by the barista. When I saw a hand do the caramel drizzle on a tall cup, I figured that one might be for me...oh, the barista lidded it. Nope, not my drink. "Marly," the barista called. Surprised, I said, "Where's the salt?" because I knew the last step was to shake on sea salt (see above Starbuck's graphic). In response the barista, who continued barista-ing without a look up, said, "We're out of salt." I said, "But I ordered it for the salt." Still not looking at me, "We're sorry about that ma'am."

Grrrrr! The store was crowded so getting a new drink was complicated. Luckily I had a salt packet in my luggage, and even though it was mere fine grind table salt, my foodie compass was set on that flavor profile and the basic salt sprinkled on top did the trick. Before leaving San Fran, though, I went back to that store and explained to a manager, suggesting if they don't have an ingredient in something I'm buying, could they at least tell me and give me the chance to order something else. Seems like a reasonable request to me. The manager was sincere and apologized and gave me two free drink coupons.

Once back in LA, with the feeling of autumn growing more possible and an unassuaged craving still on my lips, I popped into a local USC Starbucks to use one of my coupons and make things right. This time it was morning, and a salted caramel hot chocolate would simply not do; I needed caffeine. So I ordered its sister drink that was being promoted in-store by a hand-written sign: "Trojans, try a salted caramel mocha!" Ok I will! Standing by the barista, I saw his arm do the caramel drizzle with a subsequent lidding. Hope turned to worry, please don't call my name, this can't happen again... "Marly. Salted caramel mocha." Noooooooo!!! It was deja vu when I said, "Where's the salt?" "We're out of salt. We've been out of salt for awhile." (Um, maybe you should change that sign then...) "But I just used a free coupon for this drink because there wasn't salt at the last place!" "Have a nice day," the barista's silent denial smile suggested.

That day at lunch I gave a call to Starbucks Customer Service in Seattle. I told the rep my story, that in two different Starbucks in two different cities in California the same thing happened. The customer service rep captured the story on her computer then playfully said, "Well, it looks like I've gotta send California some salt!" To which I replied, "Yes that, but really what you've gotta do is tell them to stop selling drinks with salt in them if they're out of salt!" The name of the drink contains the word "salt." If you don't have an ingredient in something you're selling to a person, and that ingredient is in the title of the product you are selling, then you cannot in good conscience sell that product without a word.

Does this mean that if Starbucks ever runs out of coffee they'd sell me a tall coffee and there'd be nothing in the cup? Or do you think they'd put down their stuffed cash registers long enough to think about the importance of saying to a customer, "Sorry, we're out of coffee." Hmm maybe, but they couldn't really say that—to them and the entire world that would be the scariest tale of all.

Until we eat again,

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