small-cupWhile visiting a favorite chain restaurant the other day, I had an experience with the clerk at the register that could have gone a little better. They were out of small cups for their soda machine and asked me to pay more for a larger cup, which I didn’t want. How the clerks handled my interaction gave me an idea for this post about how companies can continue to provide world-class customer experiences, despite cup-size availability.

Clerk #1: “We don’t have any more small cups. It’s only 25¢ more for a large soda. Ok?”

Me (a bit confused): “I’m sorry; are you saying that {well-known restaurant chain} no longer offers small-size drinks?”

Clerk #2: “Oh. Ha. No. We ran out of small cups and only have large-size cups. It’s only 25¢ extra. Ok?”

Me: “Oh. Um… why don’t you just charge me for a small drink, and give me the big cup?”

Clerk #1 looks at me like I can’t afford the extra 25¢.

Clerk #2: “I’m sorry sir… but…”

Me: “Hold on a sec. I come here 2-3x a week for lunch. It strikes me as odd that you would force me to pay for a large drink because you’re out of small-size cups. It’s not my fault you ran out, is it?”

Clerk #2: “Sir… you can just have a drink on us.”

Me: “No, really, that’s not what I want. Please charge me for a small drink, and I’ll put it in the large cup. I promise to only fill it halfway. How about that?”

Clerk #2: “Sir, here.” (hands me an extra small water cup).

Clerk #1 Finalizes the sale, without charging me for a drink at all.

First, this entire post is moot unless we can assume that this restaurant won’t face bankruptcy for losing 25¢ for each customer looking for a small cup. If you’re a restaurateur and this assumption can’t be made, please do let me know… otherwise, onward.

#1: there’s no prize for winning an argument with a customer.

It was clear that Clerk #1 wanted to “win” our conversation. This is dangerous behavior in a customer-focused environment. Other than 25¢, there’s no prize in that approach. When customers become upset, or frustrated with a company, over time they’ll often forget the root reason. But they will never forget how you made them feel. And that’s important to remember when designing world-class customer experiences.

#2: give the customer what they ask for.

Clerk #2 saw the interaction going sideways. He gave me the small water cup and refused to charge me for my drink. This is a small point, but I’m going to call it out anyway.

I didn’t want the drink for free; and he gave me a small cup, not the large one. I ended up with a cup that was too small. I wanted to pay, and I wanted the large cup. I finished my drink halfway through my lunch. I didn’t appreciate that I got the drink for free. But in the end, I would bet both clerks felt they did right by me for giving me a free drink, even in a tiny water cup.

Why do you think they gave me the small cup, instead of the large one like I asked? To save the company money? To still “win” the argument, in some small way?

I love this restaurant. The staff are always so happy and energetic. They take great joy in getting customers through the line in the fastest time possible. This is a business that cares deeply about the customer experience and goes to great lengths to spend time on the “little details.”

So what could this restaurant have done differently?

I think some people reading this article might jump to a quick rule-based solution that goes something like, “When we run out of small cups again, just give customers large cups for the same price.” Solved and done, but not really. This is just another “rule” for staff to follow and it only treats the symptom of the problem I’m describing (we ran out of  small cups), not the root of the problem (how do we want our customers to feel when things don’t go as planned?).

Do you know how many rules you’d need for all the possible scenarios? You know who likes rules? Nobody.

The challenge with an approach that only treats a specific symptom is that it’s inflexible. How do you want your staff to handle a situation when the soda machine breaks? Or when the credit/debit machine goes down?

A stronger approach to building world-class customer experiences is to involve your team (the front-line staff especially) in the decision making process and collaborate on these things. Ask your staff what they think the approach should be. Help facilitate the conversation and explain why some suggestions are less-focused while others might cost the company money.

It’s valuable for your staff to understand some of your own thinking behind a particular approach; this kind of knowledge transfer is invaluable, and transformative and it will help your staff feel ownership around the service they create. Your staff will be happier because they can solve problems on the company’s behalf, and even when you might not be available. Ultimately, you’re entire front-line staff could be making the same smart, customer-focused decisions you would have made yourself.

Even when you’re all out of small cups.


Ben Lucier is a management consultant based in New York City. Ben consults with Internet start-ups of all sizes to help them design world-class customer service teams that tightly integrate with Product Management and Marketing. You can learn more about Ben at his LinkedIn profile.