On being a regular at the “Best Neighborhood Bar”

woman_at_barA few weeks ago Zach Geballe wrote a short piece in the Seattle Weekly about the Best Neighborhood Bar, featuring my very own neighborhood bar, Solo.  As one of Solo’s regulars, I was excited to see the review and it was quickly passed around all the usual social media channels. I believe the author meant to praise the bar as a place that welcomes people in and will, in time, “make you one of their own.” He even goes out of his way in the comments section to clarify why you can’t compare a neighborhood bar to other establishments, but he kicked off with a couple of statements that are still niggling at me and I had to address:

  • Regulars will get served first
  • Regulars may get charged less

Actually, to set the record straight, the regulars routinely get served last when the bar is full of theater-goers or other outside groups. In fact, I’m as likely to waive the bartender off to take care of the other guests before attending to me or my husband. And I know I’m not the only regular to do this. We’re not rushing in or out from a show so we can and do happily wait for a moment’s lull in the activity to get our drinks.

As far as getting charged less, that may happen occasionally, and the bartender may even buy us a drink once in a while, but that is hardly the norm. Besides, we are bringing the bar a lot more of our business over the long haul than is the random person stopping in one time ever. It’s not so different than the “frequent shopper” cards you get for any business you frequently visit. But more importantly, I think, is the true regular is a supporter of the business. We don’t want all our drinks to be cheap or free – we want the business to succeed so we can keep coming there.

However, neither of these points has anything to do with how the bartenders treat newcomers. I haven’t been a newcomer at Solo in awhile, so it’s hard for me to comment on that other than to say that I was new there once myself and felt welcome enough to keep coming back. My husband and I visited quite a few local Queen Anne places and while we enjoyed the service we received at those places (except for Pesos – never go there unless you are 21.0 years old, attractive, and looking for a hook-up), none of them became “home” like Solo.

Solo-Logo1

There is something special and different about being a regular. So, yes, it’s true, there are some perks to being a regular at Solo that the casual visitor doesn’t receive from the bartender or the other regulars:

  • You will be greeted by name when you come in and usually with a hug, or hugs, depending on how many other regulars are there. You’ll get and give another round of hugs when you leave.
  • You know the bartenders by name. All of them. (Val-Michael-Elizabeth-Meredith-Allen-Dustin). If the bartender happens to be new, they will get introduced to you. You also probably know their dog’s names, and you’re friends with most of them on Facebook. And you’ll have exchanged cell numbers with a few as well.
  • You get invited to birthday parties at their home.
  • You’ve had them over to your home.
  • You may have gone bowling with some of them.
  • They will come and cheer you on when you run a half-marathon.
  • They will invite you to their wedding.
  • They will help you celebrate your own birthdays, anniversaries, first days, last days, hard times, happy hours, and even a few New Years. They will be a safe place for you to meet and repair fences with your ex-husband whom you hadn’t seen in over 10 years. They will let you sit quietly in the corner using the wireless because yours crapped out at home.
  • You will have brought every visiting blood family member to meet them because they are part of your “other” family.

Before Solo I had never been a regular at a bar, or any other business for that matter. In fact, I probably has some preconceived notions about what being a regular at a bar meant and it wasn’t necessarily positive. What I have come to learn is just like everything else in life, it’s all about relationships. I suppose the alcohol amplifies and intensifies that in some ways, but we regulars are not a bunch of drunks elbowing first-time visitors out of the way. We are just people – people who enjoy each others company and care about each others lives, and we’ll care about yours, too, if you hang around a bit and get to know us.

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You can’t have good customer service with miserable employees

CORRECTION: I listed the wrong store (Staples) in my original publishing of this post. When I discovered the error, I immediately un-published the post and edited it to note the correct store (OfficeMax). My apologies to Staples for calling them out in error and for not fact-checking myself against my receipt (which is how I discovered the mistake). We’re all human and this post is not about never making mistakes, it’s about creating a culture of internal customer service.

My Labor Day weekend has been filled with much errand-running, including a stop at OffixeMax yesterday. (*BTW, why is it that articles like this often don’t want to name the establishment where the crappy service went down? OfficeMax, I hope you are “listening” and are embarrassed enough to want to change something…) *Probably has something to do with not wanting to call out the wrong store by mistake…

First, the good service part of my experience. I was warmly greeted by a friendly young woman at a register when I walked in the store. I asked for her help in finding my item and she helped me figure out where in the store it was, and although she could not leave the register, gave me easy directions to find it. When I was checking out later, she commented that she was glad I was able to find what I had asked about. She is a keeper and I can only hope some of her attitude can rub off on the other employees, and not the other way around.

She happened to be the only employee at a register and had someone in her line in front of me purchasing literally hundreds of file folders, of different types and styles. I’m guessing it may have been a teacher getting ready for back to school. Each different type of folder had to be rung up separately and it was taking quite a while to process everything. I was next in line and not in any rush, so I settled in to wait. However, quite a line formed behind me and folks were getting rather impatient. There was another employee at the copy center desk and someone behind me asked if he could get rung up there. This is where things turned ugly. The employee looked at him like he was some kind of alien and said (very snarkily), “can’t you see I’m helping this person??” The lady next up in line said to the rest of us, “I guess that was a no, a definite snarky no.”

But, wait, it gets worse. As the line is getting longer, another employee comes up to the empty register next to our line and starts refilling the soda fridge. I’m thinking to myself, I bet these fine folks in line would rather you rang them up than stock some soda to start chilling. Plus, even if they wanted to buy one of those warm sodas, who would ring them up? She looked at the one cashier and muttered something like, “Fine, I can start checking, but I’m supposed to be leaving.” Made us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

The snarky employee then opened his line at the copy center as well and proceeded to waive his arms and yell at folks something along the lines of, “Helloooo, I am open over here. Come this way. Come on!” Sorry, we didn’t catch the clue fella. We got kind of confused when you told us just a few mere seconds ago that you were all busy and everything.

I paid for my item and as I made my way out to the car all I could think was that OfficeMax must be a terrible place to work, or at least it was at that particular store (Ballard location if anyone at Corporate wants to know). Aside from the one wonder-employee who helped me initially, no one seemed to want to help any of the customers. They ultimately opened more registers, but it felt a little more like it was to usher us out the door rather than because it was the right thing to do.

One might say, hey, this is retail and on a holiday weekend, and who wants to work at a OffixeMax. Today, I had to run to my local Bartell’s Drugstore, still on a holiday weekend (and the store is right near a huge music festival currently taking place – not the case for OfficeMax), and still in retail. A line formed at the one open register, but the cashier called for back-up and someone appeared immediately. She was friendly and even took time to comment on my jewelry. This prompted the original cashier to smile and comment as well. The store was crazy busy, but the employees were smiling and genuinely helpful. Does this Bartell’s values customer service over that OfficeMax? I’m sure OfficeMax would say they care a great deal about service, but I can’t help but believe the general mood and attitude of the employees played as big a role in my experience as any mission statement about customers written on a wall somewhere.

One of the most important aspects of service, in my opinion, is internal customer service. How “Management” treats employees, how employees treat each other, how people in different departments interact, all trickle down to how the outside client experiences our businesses. If everyone in a company can agree that focusing on serving all clients, inside and outside the company, everyone wins. And that starts at the top. So OffixeMax HQ, I see far more lacking in your service to your employees at the store in Ballard than I did in their service to us.

A customer is the most important visitor on our premises, he is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.
Mahatma Gandhi


Great Customer Service Only a Bus Ride Away

Throughout my career, my work has always involved customer service in one way or another. The opportunity to help someone is the most rewarding aspect of every job I’ve held. In fact, I am sometimes stymied by how often customer service is so lacking when the real solution to most any company with service issues is to simply focus on helping people. I guess that is easier said than done, but I have found good service in some places where you might otherwise not expect it. Because I am so focused on the subject, and because it is my essentially my job to be a student of good service, I try to pay attention when I myself am the customer to learn what exactly “good” looks like.

Most days I ride the bus to work in Pioneer Square, south of downtown Seattle. The bus may be the last place to expect great customer service, but over and over again I blown away by the level of service I see there on a daily basis.

On one occasion I jumped off the bus and realized I had left my soda at home in the freezer. Not only did this leave me without my vital supply of morning caffeine, it also represented a huge mess in the freezer if left there for the rest of the day. As I crossed the street, a bus was pulling up to the stop going the other direction. I thought I could very easily hop on, go home, grab my soda and make it back to work in time. However, the bus I picked unfortunately made a right turn where I expected it to go straight and was obviously the wrong route. I walked up to the driver and asked where the next stop was and it was even more unfortunately WAY farther away than I expected to go. I asked if he would let me off on the street. This was a busy street and he said there was no way he was letting me off in the middle of traffic. Fair enough. I resigned myself to figuring out how to find my way back home, but he made another turn onto a slower street, pulled up to the curb (no bus stop in sight) and asked me if letting me off there would help and I was able to walk the rest of the way home. I was impressed that he said “no” when it wasn’t safe, but also took the initiative to offer me an alternate solution when he could. In fact, since being the recipient of that kindness, I have seen many a passenger be let on or off the bus outside of the regular stops when it is clear they have gotten themselves in a jam. I have also seen countless drivers tell a confused patron to jump on the bus and ride a few stops and have the driver give them detailed instructions about how to get where they are going, which includes not only which bus route to ride but also how to get there once they get off the bus.

Although Seattle has a high number of professional workers riding the bus, the buses going through downtown are all ride-free, so it has a fair number of homeless passengers as well. This last week I was on the way to work and a homeless gentleman in a wheel chair, along with several milk crates containing valued possessions got on the bus. This meant the driver had to lower the ramp to the curb, fold up the wheelchair accessible portion of the seats, and secure the passenger’s chair with two seat belts designed for this purpose. Not only does this take a considerable amount of time, but this particular passenger was in desperate need of a shower if not at the very least a toothbrush and some deodorant. The driver was extremely patient and before she took off the emergency brake and started the bus confirmed the rider was in fact secure.

You might think with all these lost and confused customers getting on the wrong bus or off at the wrong stop, combined with what most of us would consider less than savory clientele would put the drivers in a perpetually bad mood, but here again the opposite seems to be true. The drivers themselves get from stop to stop to switch drivers by riding the bus and they always seem extremely glad to see each other. In the few moments between transitioning between drivers I often seem them swapping stories and quickly catching up on the latest tidbits of gossip for the day. They also clearly get to know some of their regular customers and exchange friendly greetings when they see them entering the bus. I don’t know how it is in other cities, but the custom in Seattle is for riders to greet the driver with a “good morning” or “good afternoon” as they enter, and to leave them with a “thank you” as they depart, and I am always greeted with equal if not more enthusiastic responses in reply.

What can the rest of us learn from the King County Metro system?

  • Happy Employees provide better service
  • Empowered Employees will make better choices about how to best help your clients
  • Compassionate Employees not only help people but make your organization look good
  • Foster a culture of saying “thank you” which leads to more compassionate, empowered, and happier employees