Closing Time

When I turned sixteen I couldn’t wait to find a job. Luckily, a friend of the family owned a carwash/gas station. My job consisted of sending cars through the automated wash and hand drying them as they exited.

For my work, I was paid $3.35 or a dime more than minimum wage. I showed up each Saturday morning at 8 am sharp and helped prepare the station for the day.

 

I learned a number of skills at that job, some of which I still think back on today. We didn’t have digital cash registers that calculated the change for us so I learned to count change back to customers. I also became comfortable checking and adding oil to various makes of cars. I also learned how to handle customers who expected their Pontiac Fiero to come out of a four dollar carwash looking show floor new.

One learning experience stands out though.

After a warm summer day, my coworker and I were in a hurry to close the station and spend the evening chasing girls or trouble or both. We began cleaning the large brushes with a cleaning solution that’s probably illegal today. My job was to dip two rags into an oily solution, turn the brushes on full speed and then hug the brushes until they were fully covered. Of course, more solution ended up on my clothing and hair than the brushes.

Not smoking probably saved my life.

We followed standard closing procedure by cleaning and preparing areas customers could not see. We were not allowed to lock the gas pumps until the 7 pm closing time.

But business had been light for the past hour and we couldn’t wait to begin our evening. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to lock half the gas pumps 30 minutes early, would it? Locking the pumps was time consuming because a number of readings had to be taken including dipping a 20 foot wooden pole down into the underground fuel containers.

Between cleaning the brushes and dipping that wooden pole into the container, no job since has provided so much excitement and potential danger.

So we locked one island of pumps and waited the last half hour before locking the rest and hopefully getting out a bit earlier than usual.

As I pumped gas for one of our regular customers, the owner of the station pulled up to one of the locked pumps. He didn’t have to get out of his car to notice it was locked.

I finished helping customers, while he waited next to his car. To his credit he didn’t explode or lay into me, although he had every right to. I explained that we hoped to get out as close to 7 pm as possible.

At that point he said, “I’d like you to pump my gas from this pump”.

And that’s when he taught me something I’ve never forgotten. “We close when our last customer drives away.”

What if a customer had pulled up to a locked pump and driven away before I could direct them to the other island? Nobody wants to feel like they are being hurried out of a business they are willing to patronize. He reminded me there were two gas stations located less than block away.

I got the message. The owner gave me a mulligan. I wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

I thought about his words this weekend when we visited Qdoba thirty minutes before closing. All but two smaller tables had been pushed to one side of the business. Chairs were balanced on top of tables, and one man was moping the floors under our feet as we ordered.

I should have walked out at that point, but the kids were hungry and strapping them into the van isn’t a pleasant exercise as they tell us for the 100th time how hungry they are.

To make matters more dangerous, the only way to the soda dispenser was through the wet area he’d already mopped. Of course, it took less than a minute for Kai fall down in that area while running to help his sister.

The woman who took our order was friendly, although I wasn’t happy when she asked, “This is to go, right?” as she cut the kids cheese quesadilla.

I understand the workers at Qdoba probably felt the same way I did as I locked down the gas pumps so many years ago. But last night did not make us fans of Qdoba. And because there’s a Chipotle a block away, we’ll take our business there next time we’re in the mood for quasi-healthy Mexican food.

Photo by Tommy Ironic

Left Scratching My Head At Barnes and Noble

I’ve been looking forward to the release of a book called “The Book of Basketball” by Bill Simmons. Simmons is one of my favorite columnists from ESPN. 

I considered pre-ordering the book on Amazon. But while I was in Bellevue this afternoon, I decided to swing by Barnes and Noble and buy the book. It wasn’t in stock. As I was about to leave, the Barnes and Noble employee asked if I’d like to be notified by email when the book arrived. bofbask

Sure, why not. I gave him my email and he said, “That book is $30 in store.”

“In store?”

“Yes, in store price is $30. That means you want it now and will pick it up from the store.”

“But you don’t have it now. The same book is $16.50 at Amazon”, I tell him.

“You can always order it from our website, where I’m sure it’s less than $30.”

I left the store shaking my head. As much as I want to support local shops, $30 is quite the markup for a book. Does Barnes and Noble want my business? I left with doubts.

What if the employee had offered to ship the book directly to my house at the same price ($17.55) I can purchase the book from the Barnes and Noble website? I would have purchased it on the spot.

It’s only one book and I’m just some guy off the street. But Barnes and Noble missed an opportunity to sell me a book today. And more important, I doubt I’ll go back the next time I’m looking for a new hardcover.

The Amazon website was more helpful than the Barnes and Noble employee. I came home from work and ordered two books and some supplies from Amazon. I’m sure it won’t be the last time.

Extra Mild Sauce at Del Taco

Del Taco is a member the “bang for the buck” Fast Food Hall of Fame. Kim swears by their 1/2 pound burritos. Lincoln loves their tacos. And I like to put mild sauce on their crinkle fries.

I’m talking cheap rather than healthy.

Doesn’t matter what we order at Del Taco, they never give us enough of their Mild Sauce; a sauce so good it deserves to be capitalized.

As I went through the drive-thru last night I reminded the young man working the window that we’d appreciate a lot of Mild Sauce. When he handed me our bags of food, he said, “Here’s a bag with Mild Sauce”.

We pulled around into the parking lot and ate our food. Kim and I used about ten packets of Mild Sauce, but we had a lot left over. But it wasn’t till we returned home that we noticed how much sauce was left over.

Today, I pulled out the bag and placed the packets on our kitchen table. The kids gathered around as if I were organizing Halloween candy.

Luca counted 67 packets left over from last night.

I’m considering handing them out to the kids this Halloween.

hotsauce

Respect Your Customer’s Time

Too few companies respect my time.

This past week I spent nearly 15 minutes jumping through a telephone tree maze only to find out the department I needed to speak with was closed for the day.

I’ve waited in line for 10 minutes while one employee calls another to price check an item costing less than five bucks.

How many times have you discussed a problem with an employee only to have them say, “I can’t authorize that for you. You’ll need to speak with my manager”?

Do you give your employees the authority to make your customers happy? Or have you put up processes to wear down your customers?

Reminds me of a cell phone rebate I submitted a few years back that required ten mind-numbing steps, my favorite of which was “Enclose a copy of your second month’s bill”. This company knew that many people will miss a step resulting in the rebate being declined.

So it was a pleasant surprise dealing with Discount Tire this afternoon. I called ahead to determine whether or not I needed to make an appointment to have my tires rotated.

“We are open till 5 pm. If you can get here before then we”ll get it done for you today.”

Wow.

I was expecting something along the lines of “We close at 5 pm but stop accepting new work after 4 pm”.

They take my name, and when I pull in 15 minutes later, a Discount Tire employee meets me as I pull in. He doesn’t try to sell me rims or new tires. He takes my keys and says, “We’ll have her done in 20 minutes.”

I picked up my car and was off. Nothing to sign. No sales pitch. They respected my time and I’ll be back when I need new tires.

Just Follow the Quizno’s Signs

I’ve written before about how much I enjoy signs. Especially those that show up around businesses in full view of customers. Some of the best signs turn up at fast food joints that are typically staffed by a young crew of creative kids who can’t wait around for the corporate offices to make them a sign.

So they take matters into their own hands and and create some of the best unintentional humor around. It’s like a dinner play at a fraction of the cost.

Take the signs I came across at our local Quizno’s this afternoon. As I stepped up to the counter to order, I was presented with this gem:

quiznoscaution

I’m not sure “Caution” is the best choice when you’re in the sandwich business. Plenty of businesses sell items at cost, but make it up in other areas. Maybe there’s big profits in selling extra “guacamole”. I don’t know, but I love the use of quotation marks.

One more thing – wouldn’t one $ sign do? When I see $$$$ I think of Zagat reviews. By that scale a few extra tomatoes may run 50 bucks.

As I filled the kids drinks, I noticed this sign:

refills

I’m only used to paying for refills at Chinese and Thai restaurants. I don’t know what it is about those two, but it’s not uncommon for a glass of ice and a can of Diet Coke to arrive at our table. Maybe they don’t believe in the concept of fountain drinks, but I’ve adjusted my lifestyle to deal with it.

But I’m not accustomed to paying extra for fountain drinks at fast food places on top of inflated prices. Especially those with self-serve stations. I finished my Diet Pepsi and slowly nudged my way back over to the cooler where I filled my cup with ice. The two Quizno’s employees gave me the stare-down assuming I was about to fill my cup with an extra 99 cents worth of refreshment.

As I stood at the counter ready to pay for my meal, I noticed the obligatory tip jar.

tips 

I paid for one sandwich and three kid’s meals. The kids wanted chips so the cashier reached into each bag and pulled out the chocolate chip cookie right in front of the kids. I guess you get one or the other when business is tight.

How many of you would still leave a tip a this point?

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Calling the Taco Bell Customer Hotline

While working late on my computer a few days ago, I decided to make a run for the border. The Taco Bell Spicy Chicken Crunchwrap Supreme was calling my name. It’s my favorite item on the menu. In fact, it’s the only item on the menu that I love.

Two features draw me to the Spicy Chicken Crunchwrap Supreme:

  1. the spicy chicken
  2. easy to eat while driving

One can’t go wrong ordering a Spicy Chicken Crunchwrap Supreme day or night. So I found myself at the drive-thru late Saturday night. I ordered two Spicy Chicken Crunchwrap Supremes, and before I could place an order for a large Diet Pepsi, a voice came over the intercom announcing they only carry the Crunchwrap Supreme with beef.

What??!!

I asked again just to be sure, but the gentleman working the window confirmed the Spicy Chicken Crunchwrap Supreme has been removed from the menu.

So I decided to call the Taco Bell Customer Hotline to see who was responsible for this obvious oversight. I visited the Taco Bell website where I found the customer hotline (1-800-TACO-BELL). I dialed the number and was immediately connected with Cheryl, Taco Bell Customer Hotline Rep.

Here’s how the call unfolded:

Cheryl: Thank you for calling the Taco Bell customer hotline. This is Cheryl. Can I get your name and your phone number?

Me: (I give her my name and bogus phone number)

Cheryl: How can I help you today?

Me: I have a few questions concerning the Spicy Chicken Crunchwrap Supreme which is my favorite item on your menu.

Cheryl: I’m sorry, we’re longer serving the Spicy Chicken Crunchwrap Supreme.

Me: That’s why I’m calling. Do you know why it was yanked and when it’s coming back?

Cheryl: Decisions, such as what’s on the menu, are made at our corporate headquarters. I can’t confirm it’s ever coming back, but I will note that you’d like us to bring it back.

Me: Do you know the name of the person at corporate who made that decision? Maybe hearing it’s a favorite among my family and friends would change his mind.

Cheryl: I have no way of connecting you. Do you know that we still offer the original Crunchwrap Supreme with beef?

Me: Yes, but it’s the spicy chicken that makes it magical. Do you think if I called ahead, I could place a special order for the Spicy Chicken Crunchwrap Supreme?

Cheryl: Sir, I’m sorry but we currently only offer the one with beef.

Me: So there’s no spicy chicken stash hiding in a freezer that could be unthawed and cooked up if I called ahead?

Cheryl: Uhhh….no.

Me: Have you taken many calls from customers like myself who have asked for the return of the Spicy Chicken Crunchwrap Supreme?

Cheryl: Oh yes. Quite a few people have called in asking us to bring it back.

Me: What would you say the chances corporate decides to bring it back for the summer? Better than 50%?

Cheryl: Sir, I can’t say for certain. All I can do is pass on your suggestion to bring it back. Is there anything else I can help you with?

Me: Not today. Thank you for your time. Goodbye.

Connecting With Your Customers

The last few times I’ve visited the Taco Time in Bellevue, WA the manager has approached our table near the end of our visit to ask if we were pleased with the food and service. The last time I purchased tires, the manager of Discount Tire stopped by to meet me when I returned to pickup my car. He wanted to ensure I was satisfied with my new tires and the service his employees rendered. And I recently wrote about my experience at a local carwash where the owner went out of his way to learn about me.

This got me thinking about how well I know the customers in my line of business and how often do I reach out to them.  And more importantly, how well do I know what they are looking for. Why do they choose to do business with us over a competitor or vice versa? What could we do better? Which customers are our biggest fans?

These are a few questions I’ve asked myself as our business has become more competitive yet our market is shrinking.

If given a choice, I will do business with people I know and have build a relationship. That ranges from a $20 haircut to a $20,000 car. I find it curious that some owners make it a priority to get to know their customers and some don’t seem to care. Are you willing to step out from behind your desk and actively search for opportunities? Or will you kick back and browse through the customer surveys once a month?

I once worked for a company where, at the end of every project, the CEO called the client. Instead of focusing on the survey return rate, his focus was on listening to each customer. He’d organize the feedback, both positive and negative, and present it at our company meeting each month. This feedback was much more valuable than raw numbers. Most customers appreciate the opportunity to speak with the CEO. It sends the message, “Your business is important to us”.

A few weeks ago I took in a pair of shoes for repair. The man who took my shoes was the owner. He repaired the shoes and took my money when I came back for them. When he said, “I appreciate your business” I knew he meant it. It wasn’t some required scripted question we’ve all heard like “Would you like to save 10% today by applying for a Target card?” Not every business is small enough to allow the owner to interact with all clients. But I believe all business owners should look for opportunities to listen to their clients and encourage their employees to do the same.