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The importance of problem-solving in customer experience: from me, your customer

An open letter to the waitress who rolled her eyes at me and gave me a lecture last week.

Let me begin by saying my intention is not to cause a debate about the merits of tipping. I’m just saying that – whether you agree or disagree with the practice – we currently participate in a society where we are encouraged to tip servers based on our level of satisfaction with the dining experience. Let me also say that I completely agree with the notion that the way you treat your servers (and others in the service industry) is a reflection of your character, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for those in the service industries.

Having said that,


Let me share with you a recent example of dining out where my wife and I left incensed, vowing to never return to the restaurant. So what went wrong?

The food was fine enough. It was the server that ruined the entire dining experience for us by uttering just one sentence…

But first, some context.

Everybody has their go-to stupid human trick to impress people at parties, right? Maybe it’s a favorite card-trick, joke, or some weird thing you can do with your body. (I once met a guy who could actually lick his own elbow. He was able to dislocate his shoulder on command, and this gave him the flexibility needed to maneuver his arm in such a way that he could touch it to his tongue.) Well my stupid human trick is the uncanny ability to identify songs almost instantaneously as soon as they start playing. While I certainly don’t know every song, I know a lot of songs. And if I know a song, there’s a pretty good chance I’ll be able to tell you the name and artist of the song as soon as I hear it. It’s just how my brain works.

Also, how many of you just tried to lick your own elbow?

Anyway, while traveling to celebrate a friend’s birthday, we all went out to celebrate at what I’m told is considered the nicest restaurant in the town. The restaurant was playing trendy music – the kind you would hear at a hip rooftop bar or by the poolside of a resort. It was “cool” music to set the atmosphere, but it played quietly enough so it did not disrupt conversation at the table. Sometime into the dinner, a song came on that I recognized, but it was so quiet I was having trouble identifying it. The inability to identify a song is like a puzzle to me, and it becomes my immediate obsession.


You know the feeling when something is on the tip of your tongue, but it just won’t appear? That was what was happening in my brain. I tried using my phone to identify the song, but alas, it was being played too quietly for my phone to recognize. This led to the following exchange with our server when she came to check on our table.

Server: “How is everybody’s food tasting?”

Us: “Good. Thank you.”

Server: “Great! Is there anything else I can do for you right now?”

Me: “Actually, it’s a kind of weird request, but is there any way you could find out the name of the song that’s playing right now?”

The server dropped her hands to her hips with an indignant huff and said to me, “Really? That’s not my job.”

Disappointed in her attitude but not wanting to ruin dinner, I tried to move on by saying, “Oh geez. I’m sorry, I just figured it didn’t hurt to ask just in case you knew.”

She then continued to chastise me by saying, “By helping you with something that isn’t my job, it’s preventing me from being able to get food to all my other tables. My job is to get food to the tables. Not to answer weird questions.” And she stormed away from our table before I was able to reply.

Was my request unorthodox, maybe even a little weird? Sure. Was it unreasonable? Well that got me curious, so I decided to ask the question again at different restaurants throughout my travels to see just how the response would be handled. Here’s what happened.

1. Andy: small-town server

First up was a small Italian restaurant in a relatively small town. Pretty similar to the now infamous restaurant where the previous incident occurred. Midway through dinner, just like during the previous meal, I asked in exactly the same tone and phrasing if there was any way our server, Andy, could find out the song for me. Without hesitation he said, “Sure.” He zipped away from the table and was back in less than 30 seconds with the title and artist of the song without any of his other tables even noticing there was a delay.

When I asked how he did it, he explained that the satellite radio setup was in the bar. He simply went behind the bar, looked at the radio interface, and saw the title and artist scrolling past. Awesome work, Andy!

2. Josh: small-town bartender

Next up was a small-town bar. Josh, the bartender, was friendly enough and kept our drinks full, so I appreciated that. When I asked if there was any way he could figure out what song was playing, he said, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I’ve ever heard this song before.” Not great, but at least he didn’t give me a lecture about his job responsibilities.

3. Karli: mid-size restaurant server in the midst of a dinner rush

The odds were against Karli because the restaurant was pretty busy during the dinner rush. So, I really didn’t know what to expect when I asked her if there was any way she could figure out the song for me. Her response? “Sure, let me check in on my other tables real quick and then let me figure out what I can do for you.” A couple minutes later (the song was over by this point), Karli came back to the table and correctly told me what song had been playing when I asked. Karli had evidently dropped dinner off to her tables, then hustled back to the kitchen where she held her phone next to the speaker to get the name of the song for me. Way to problem solve and hustle, Karli!

4. Joel: big-city bartender

If the odds were stacked against Karli, then the odds were really stacked against Joel because this was a fully-packed bar in a major metropolis. When I asked Joel if there was any way he could find out what song was playing, he wasn’t able to leave the bar because it was too busy and abandoning his post would result in other unhappy customers. So how did he handle it? Like a pro! Without missing a beat, Joel called to the hostess nearby to see if she could help. The hostess – also unable to leave her post due to the line that had formed at the door – was able to communicate the request to another passing employee. From there, I’m not sure what happened, but less than a minute later Joel was back to tell me what song was playing and to check and see if we needed a refill. Great teamwork, Joel and team!

So after all of this, was my request unreasonable? I don’t know. I’ll let the comment section debate that. But I’ll tell you one thing I do know: as a server, your job is not just getting food to the table; YOUR JOB IS THE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE!

In all the experiences above, the servers were confronted with a problem: identify the song. Their responses set the tone for the rest of the dining experience:

  1. Give me an eyeroll and lecture for asking? You’re not getting a good tip, and I’m never coming back to your restaurant.
  2. Not solving my problem, but at least you were nice about it. That’s good, I guess, but you’re certainly not providing a differentiated customer experience.
  3. Figuring out how to solve my problem. Wow! You solved my problem. Not only am I coming back to your restaurant, but you’re also getting a good tip, I’m specifically asking for you next time I come in, and I’m telling my friends how great the restaurant is.

In every organization, the customer experience differentiation war is being won by frontline employees who do more than just get the food to the table. It doesn’t matter whether you think it’s fair or reasonable. The true champions of the customer experience are the ones who can solve customer problems.

What’s your frontline saying to the customers? “Not my job;” “Sorry, I can’t help;” or “I’ll find a way to figure it out!”

I’ll tell you one thing, I know which one is getting my business.

Your Customer

March 19, 2019


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