Saturday, February 15, 2014

Going Deaf in the Neighborhood (In the Category of Be Where You Are.)

I had the damndest experience yesterday, a jaw-dropping moment of rudeness in a service-oriented establishment. Here’s a fact: If you run a service-oriented business, and you don’t believe the customer is always right, you are doing it wrong.

Listen, I bartended and waited tables immediately after college and all through graduate school. I know firsthand that the customer is not always right. Occasionally the customer is a drunken asshole who needs to be arrested rather than mollified. Occasionally they are cheap jerks who think it’s enlightening to leave, in place of a tip on a $40 tab, a business card for their stupid church, like oh sure, that will feed the cat and me. (I just realized, 24 years later, I still really hate that man…shaking mad all over again…he and his dour-faced wife were a picky, demanding table, rude from the first hello; they ate like pigs, left a mess, and business card instead of a tip…actually wrote a little note on it to the effect that God was the only tip I needed. The Lord prepares a special hell for assholes like that, but I digress.)

Yesterday, Friday, was Valentine’s Day. I had been working from home since the snowstorm hit Wednesday afternoon, which is nice to be able to do, but cabin fever had set in. My husband and I managed to dig out the driveway by noon yesterday and decided to go out for lunch, an early, more practical spin on a Valentine’s Day meal. We went to Applebee’s in Christiansburg, because we tend to like their bartenders, and on any given day, we are likely to run into at least one friend or acquaintance. It’s our “feel good” neighborhood spot, and if I understand the Applebee’s brand correctly, they want us to have that experience. We’ve been hanging out at this particular spot pretty regularly since the day it opened back in the mid-to-late 1990’s.

The nice bartender, I’ll call him Jim, was working, and as usual, a friend and husband’s co-worker sat at the bar. (Their mutual employer had closed due to the 20+ inches of snow that had fallen the day before). Jim poured us the usual without needing to ask and handed over menus. I could barely hear his greeting because the music volume was unusually loud. I then became engrossed in the flurry of incoming emails from the post office – mail carriers reporting the successful delivery of the Valentine’s Day treats I mailed to friends and family just before the storm hit. So I missed the conversation between my husband, Jim, and the General Manager, I’ll call him Bonehead.

When I finally looked back up, the nice Kitchen Manager (not Bonehead) was urging my husband to use the survey number on our receipt to tell them how we feel. I could barely hear the conversation. I like Lenny Kravitz, I really do, and I wanted to fly away, but the driving bass and percussions were just too loud for lunchtime. I asked Jim, “Can you please turn the music down?” He shook his head, and looked confused. My husband said, “No Kim, he can’t that’s what we were just bitching about. Didn’t you hear any of it?”

“Well, no. The music is too loud.”

So they patiently explained to me that when Jim asked Bonehead to please turn the music down, Bonehead told Jim, “the volume is set by the owner and if you don’t like it, you know where the door is.” I was floored.

“For real?” Suddenly the conversation with the Kitchen Manager about the survey made sense. “Yeah, I’ll take a survey. Or better…” I whipped out my smart phone and pulled up Twitter. “Hey @Applebees,” I typed, “the music in your 24073 store is too damn loud and the manager won’t turn it down. Help!”

I had a reply within moments, and a tip of the hat to the Applebee’s social media team for getting that right. “We can’t help you quickly from here, but please tell our customer care team.” The Tweet included a link to the customer care web site, but it was too large a form to deal with on the smart phone. About that time, Bonehead wandered by to speak to the table directly behind us (not sure if they were complaining about the music). As he walked away I flagged him down and asked him, “Can you please turn down the music?”

He all but rolled his eyes and gave my husband a look like, “Can’t you control her?”  The he explained how the owners set the volume and that was that.

I said, “But we would like to have a quiet conversation, and we can’t do that politely at this volume.” Lenny Kravitz’s voice trailed off as the song ended and a thumping hip hop number came on.

Bonehead had to raise his voice to make his retort audible. “We’re having a conversation now,” he said defensively.

“Not a quiet one,” I half-hollered back.

“Well I can turn it down for now, but the next time you come in, it will be back at this volume so you may as well get used to it.”

My jaw dropped. “No need to bother,” I told him. “We’re leaving.” Bonehead gave me a nasty look and stalked off. We paid the check for the two barely touched beverages and left. We didn’t leave a tip on principle, but we’ll slide by there later today, and if Jim is working, we’ll slip him a twenty.

I continued roundly bashing Applebee’s on Twitter from my comfortable seat at O’Charley’s (which is less than a mile from ‘Bee’s). They urged me again to contact their customer care team, so when I got home, I did. The form allows for 1500 characters, a veritable banquet of words, compared to Twitter, so I told the whole sorry tale, including the veiled threat to that nice bartender, Jim, who had tried to intervene on our behalf.

Then last night, my phone rang. It was the regional manager for Applebee’s responding to my email. I’ll call him Clark. Clark sounded horrified about the “threat” made to Jim, which pleased me. As a former bartender, I know what a hard job that is, and Jim is good at it. I told Clark if Jim lost his job because of this, I would be angry. He assured me that would not happen. He apologized repeatedly, and not just because we’re regulars. (“Newcomers shouldn’t have to listen to overloud music either,” Clark pointed out.) He offered to send a gift card as well as his business card. “If you ever have a problem with any Applebee’s” and then he chuckled slightly, “in Virginia,” let me know. We appreciate your support of our brand. I’ll be bending the ear of the owners at that store next week.”

I’d love to be a fly on the wall at that meeting. Hopefully, Jim will be able to hear some of it, and maybe he’ll share a detail or two with us, if we go back. I told Clark he could send the gift card, and maybe I would use it at a different store, but truthfully, I’ll probably just give that to Jim too. It will make up for the tips he will miss out on. I can’t, in good conscience, support that particular location under its current management. Too many other restaurant managers within a two-mile radius understand: the customer is always right.

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