October 18, 2008

The Intangibles

It is Saturday morning, and my usual Saturday ritual is without direction.

My partner and I have made it a habit to take off on most Saturday mornings to get breakfast somewhere. For a long time, we went to a place in midtown, where we found good food and a very friendly server, who was the inspiration for a blog I wrote way back when entitled Sunny Side Up. When we went, we would always try to sit in her section, but even when we didn't (or couldn't), she would always come by and say hello.

Since that time, our favorite server has departed for greener pastures. We hadn't heard that she left... we went a few times and noticed that she was missing... but for all we knew, she was on vacation or something. The strange thing was, the quality of the food seemed to drop, too. The eggs weren't cooked correctly, things would be cold... Nothing else had changed... same owners, same crowd.

After three or four visits, we concluded that our friend had left... but more importantly, we weren't enjoying the food, and we were not enjoying our visits to this particular restaurant. I don't know how or why, but the departure of one server had made a profound difference in the quality of the entire experience... not just the service, but the food, too.

I must say that I am a creature of habit, and that might be a part of it. There is a convenience store that I go to on weekday mornings for coffee... and there is a rather pleasant guy there that I joke around with... and while I don't go out of my way to go there to see HIM, if he didn't make the visit a pleasant experience, I might get my coffee elsewhere.

There's something to be said for being seen as a 'regular'. You don't really get any better service... or at least, you shouldn't. But it is nice to be recognized, and it is nice that you get some value out of your visit that goes beyond just the item you pay for.

Back about fifteen years ago my job took me to Pearl River, LA for an extended work trip. At the time I was living in California, so there was a slight amount of culture shock that I experienced in the five weeks there... but it showed up most interestingly when I would go out to eat. Pearl River isn't very big, so when you stopped in at a place, it only took one or two visits before people started to know who you were.

The most striking thing I noticed was when you left a restaurant (or any other place, for that matter), the server would say, "Y'all come back and see us..." Of course, this is just the bayou way of saying 'please come again', but it was so different from what I was used to that it made an impression on me... and I would suggest that it was subtly but substantively different, though I wasn't sure of that at first. I became sure when I went to a diner in downtown Pearl River. A co-worker and I walked in and sat down. We immediately attracted withering stares from a woman standing behind the counter. The interesting thing was, this woman looked and sounded exactly like one of the women who worked in our Pearl River office...

The woman came to our table, and started quizzing us about who we were - apparently Pearl River doesn't get too many visitors... especially visitors with a distinctive non-bayou accent. When we told her where we worked, her entire countenance changed. It turned out that she was the twin sister of the woman at our office. We went from suspicious carpetbaggers to long-lost relatives in the span of a sentence. And when we left and she said, "Y'all come back and see us..." you could tell that she would have been disappointed if we hadn't.

I think a lot of owners and managers don't look at the intangibles when it comes to marketing their products and services. I hate going to Costco or Sam's Club, because I feel like the relationship part of the experience is stripped out so that customers can save fifty cents on a twenty pound tub of grated cheese. But, at least for me, the whole experience is important. When I go out to eat, I want to enjoy the entire experience. When I go to a store, I'd like to know that there's someone there that wants to help me, if I need it.

After my partner and I realized that our favorite server had bolted from our breakfast haunt, we started looking for a new place to go. We found a place, and immediately liked it... but our second visit was troubling - when there were errors in our order, the server had excuses rather than solutions. The third visit was worse than the second... the food was room temperature, and the service was slow. So today, we're without a breakfast haunt.

A couple of weeks ago I was walking out of the grocery store, and I ran across my wayward server friend. She immediately saw me and ran over and hugged me. I told her how much we missed her, and that we don't go there anymore, since she's not there. She could barely hide her contempt for her former employer... and she thought we were sweet for changing our habits when she left. She told me that she had a new job, and she was working at a different restaurant. Unfortunately, she'd taken a job with a one of the chain restaurants... and as much as I like her, it isn't enough to get me to go eat there. I am glad she's landed on her feet... but finding her didn't solve my problem.

So now I am getting hungry, and it looks like it will be me cooking... which is fine... I like to cook. But in the meantime, my Saturday morning quest continues, for je ne sais pas...

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