Customer V Owner – Who wins? You decide! (in other words, is the customer always right?!)

I am very lucky to live in a beautiful city in the North West of England. Yes… I am not actually there as often as I would like, but when I am, I do not take for granted that my children are being raised in a lovely environment. Founded as a Roman Fort in 79 AD, Chester is one of the best preserved walled cities in Great Britain.

With museums, a theatre, a Roman amphitheatre, a river, a canal and mediaeval building a plenty, Chester is a not just a great place to live, but a fantastic city to visit – especially if you like a bit of history.

So why am I telling you this? I must confirm that the focus of my blog is not switching from Customer Experience to travel! I am telling you about my home city by way of setting the context for this article. As well as being rich in culture, Chester has also become a well know destination for those who prefer to sample the riches of the stomach, in addition to history and the arts.

As a family of self-confessed ‘foodies’, the Goldings have a number of favourite eateries that never fail to satisfy our taste buds. In fact, it will not surprise you, but all of our favourite restaurants in Chester have become so, not just because they always satisfy our taste buds, but because the whole experience never fails to be consistent – consistently excellent.

As I travel so much, when I am able, I will take the opportunity to take Naomi, the long-suffering Mrs Golding, to our absolute favourite – a culinary delight in a suburb of Chester called Hoole. Often referred to as ‘Notting Hoole’, less than a mile from the city centre, this small area feels very much like the cosmopolitan part of London after which its name is mimicked. To be fair, Sticky Walnut would not look out of place in the real Notting Hill – or even Cannes for that matter.

Tucked in between takeaways and retailers in a small parade of shops, Sticky Walnut can only be described as a real gem (I suspect I am starting to sound like a restaurant reviewer at this stage!!). We have never been disappointed in all the times we have visited (which is many) – from the service, to the food, to the wine – Sticky Walnut is a restaurant I would recommend to anyone visiting the North of England, let alone Chester itself.

Sticky Walnut is not just renowned for its food though. Owned and run by restaurateur Gary Usher, the unbelievably talented chef has also become a little bit of a social media phenomenon. Known for his love of a tweet or two, Gary is also not ‘backwards in coming forwards’ when reviews of his restaurants are placed on TripAdvisor – which finally gets me to the point of this post!

Gary is very passionate about and very protective of, his business and its staff – quite rightly so. If he feels that criticism is unfair or unwarranted, then he is extremely comfortable in making his view known – if necessary, in as public a manner possible. Only last week, a customer of Sticky Walnut decided to place the following review on the website that has become the nemesis of many a business owner – TripAdvisor:

It is a very interesting review for several reasons. Firstly, the customer gave the restaurant a rating of three – higher than I would have expected in relation to the content of the review. The tone is also of note – sarcastic in the extreme – one wonders exactly what his motivation was. However, if we take his words as read, then it does appear he had an experience that failed to meet his expectations on more than one occasion.

If you were the owner of Sticky Walnut, what would your response have been? Would you have apologised? Would you have explained what happened in a calm and discreet manner so as not to upset the apple cart? Would you have focused on the final paragraph – ‘what was otherwise a lovely evening, with otherwise good food, and otherwise pleasant and efficient staff’ (this gentleman has a thing for the word ‘otherwise’) – and suggested that he have a dish ‘on the house’ when he next returns?

While you are mulling over those questions, let me share with you how the real owner of Sticky Walnut, Gary Usher, responded on TripAdvisor:

Now I bet you did not expect that!! It is a fascinating response that has already divided opinion in the local area. Yesterday I delivered a Customer Experience Masterclass for one of Dubai’s biggest banks. One of the delegates asked a common question – ‘Is the customer always right?’ – I suspect that Gary Usher would answer that in the negative.

I can confirm that customers are most definitely NOT always right – but this ‘story’ is a brilliant example of their being two sides to any story – in this case, who was right and who was wrong? You probably want to know what I would have done – I shall tell you.

To me, one of the fundamental basics when it comes to good customer experience management, is communication. If you want a customer to be under no doubt as to what is going to happen in an experience when something unexpected occurs, you must make sure they understand the consequences or benefits of a decision being made.

Whether the fish was smelly or not – and I can concur that Sticky Walnut only uses the freshest of fresh ingredients – there will always be instances when customers do not like something. As we were not there at the time, what we do not know is how the interchange with the restaurant manager went. If the customer was told – we will not charge you for the sea bream, but you can order something else from the menu which you will be charged for – then there can not be any argument. If the customer was just fishing (excuse the pun) for a free meal (which does happen) – he would have expressed his disdain at that point. If no comment was made about charging for the replacement dish, then the customer has obviously just made an assumption that it would be complimentary – the wrong assumption in this case.

There is never an excuse for a customer to treat staff badly – that is completely unacceptable. Leaving without paying for something you have consumed is also technically theft – especially if no agreement was made for the dish to be complimentary in the first place.
Other than being crystal clear with setting expectation, in all honesty, if this were my business, I would probably have not charged the customer for the replacement dish – or have given the group a complimentary round of drinks (to the same value). Whether the customer was right or wrong, it would have diffused the situation, avoided any public argument and the review would never have landed on TripAdvisor.

However, I was not there and this is not my business – so I am talking purely hypothetically. I very much empathise with Gary. This restaurant is not his job – it is his passion; his vocation; his livelihood – and when he feels it is being denigrated, then he is perfectly within his rights to stand up for his product, his staff and his beliefs.

I can tell you this – I will be returning to Sticky Walnut – many, many times (if Gary will allow us). Their food is and always has been wonderful – yet if I am ever in the situation where something is not to my liking, I will take the time to politely explain why to the lovely staff that make the restaurant tick. I doubt this will happen though – it never has in the past!

So, let me ask you the question – in the battle of customer versus owner – who do you think is right? I ask you to decide by commenting and sharing your views…

4 Comments

  1. Ellen Long November 22, 2017 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    What a great example of complaining customers in this age of review sites. We had a lady recently post a review on our Facebook page complaining that we’d ripped her off and everything was too expensive. We didn’t even know she was unhappy at that point. When spoken directly to she admitted everything was fine, it just wasn’t as expected. And this was after being sent pictures and having in depth discussions. Accepted it was her lack of understanding but hasn’t removed or edited complaint online. What do we do?

    • Ian Golding December 11, 2017 at 1:36 pm - Reply

      Thanks for sharing Ellen. In this interconnected world, it is impossible to not have these things happen. I would suggest posting a response to her post, ‘putting the record straight’ in a calm, professional manner – i.e. thanking her for her feedback and then explaining the full story. Anyone reading it will draw the right conclusion.

  2. Valerie November 23, 2017 at 9:31 am - Reply

    Dear Ian, this is a great story and raises a number of issues for debate. Personally, if I had been the owner I would have followed the route “Focus on making it right rather than being right”. Communication usually ends up as the main problem, as per your article, but whatever the customer’s motivation as a business owner I would always want to avoid the negative review and empower my staff to proactively calm the situation. This type of customer often turns completely and a 24 pound “loss” on this bill could have translated into rave reviews and an advocate for life (maybe I am a starry eyed innocent but I prefer to believe this). Thanks again for these insightful and challenging posts.

  3. Liezel Jonkheid November 23, 2017 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    Great article that opens an interesting point to debate…. is the customer always right? For me it always goes back to what is the right thing to do in a particular situation? Your comments are very valid and maybe the staff could have managed the situation in a different manner, or not? Empowering customer-facing staff to consider their decisions for service recovery within the framework of the business’ customer experience ethos, is the best possible “tool” business can provide in these challenging situations. In my opinion, being right is not always the right thing to do, and thinking beyond the current obstacle (and potentially devious behaviour of a customer) is more beneficial for the brand’s reputation in the long run.

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