Every merchant’s nightmare: Customers who are mad as hell, and aren’t going to take it anymore

You know what it’s like. Things aren’t clicking right, you’re not at your best, it’s a bad hair day. Shit happens.

Then a customer walks in whose day is bad but who’s been suppressing his or her crankiness — until now. That customer is about to make your life a living Hell.

Search Google for the phrase, “No excuse for bad service.” You’ll get 345,000 links.

Broaden it to simply, “Bad service,” and the tally reaches 3,360,000.

Downtown Des Moines, whose quiet, snow-covered streets were rocked by a viral e-mail and Facebook attack on a locally-owned restaurant.

A restaurant owner in Des Moines, Iowa, found out last week just how quickly those numbers add up, and how rapidly his enterprise could come under the knife. The agony of Legends American Grill owner Mark Rogers is a cautionary tale on the power of social media to make or break reputations on a dime.

A hair in a teacher’s salad began an encounter that led, within hours, to a viral e-mail that was the talk of sleepy Des Moines. Within a day or so, 2,000 people friended a Facebook page titled “Keep Legend’s American Grill Teacher (and Customer) Free”. The page’s intent — to destroy Legends and its owner and the owner’s two other restaurants — was clear and powerful. Some commenters on the page were Legends’ defenders, but most of the rants — I stopped counting after 1,000 (a printout filled more than 78 pages) — were calling for blood.

“Des Moines and the area would be a lot better without this shameful place,” wrote Andy Horn, one of the tamer commenters. “Someone should chase him with a pitchfork and some Silly String.”

“Whatever happened to good customer service these days,” wrote Missy West-Brown. “Apparently his employees have the same attitude that he does!!! Maybe if people were to stop eating at places owned by Mark Rogers, he may think twice about how they had behaved. I, myself, will NEVER eat at Legends, Jimmy’s American Cafe, or Fire Creek Inn! Thanks for saving me some money Mark!!!”

Remember, most Facebook commenters are not hiding behind pseudonyms and other fake identifies — they’re attaching their real names and photos to their comments. They’re proud and unafraid — and they’re settling scores.

People claiming to be former employees and friends or relatives of former employees; people who report having been slighted by the restaurant, its owner and its staff in the past; and people — hundreds of them — frustrated by having been on the receiving end of bad service at places unrelated to Legends and its owner — they all piled on, declaring forcefully that, just as in the movie “Network,” they’re fed up and are not going to take it anymore.

When “Network” was released in 1976, Americans lived vicariously through Howard Beale’s insanity. Today, every American can be a Howard Beale.

If someone had a complaint in the old days, “five or ten people might hear it,” Des Moines Local Live host Mac McKoy commented. With thousands joining a protest on Facebook, “the smallest voice is amplified.”

By this morning, the Facebook page had nearly 3,200 members.

The local CBS affiliate ran two stories; talk radio was abuzz; on Sunday, it was the subject of a column by the Des Moines Register’s lead columnist, Marc Hansen.

“This is the day Des Moines went viral,” Mac McKoy said.

Even though McKoy was put off by the viral attack on a local business and its employees — and he urged Des Moines residents to patronize Legends in its hour of crisis — he piled on as well. Pointing out that he’s known Legends’ owner Mark Rogers for many years, he said, “I don’t like Mark at all … I don’t think Mark’s an honest man … I don’t eat at Legends because I don’t like Mark Rogers, but I want to eat there now, because I want them to know that I am supporting a local business.”

The immediate cause of the anti-Legends crusade took shape last Monday, when hundreds of Des Moines teachers descended on Downtown for a professional development day. At noon, they went hunting for tasty greasy spoons or something a little nicer. Monday being a Monday (when business is traditionally slow at restaurants) and restaurateurs being notoriously deaf to their communities’ heartbeat (meaning Downtown eateries like Legends didn’t realize they’d be packed with visiting teachers), Legends — and other restaurants — got slammed.

There were long lines and unappreciated waits for service.

Possibly, the eight teachers who sat together at Legends were not in the best of moods by the time the hair materialized in one of their salads, at which point a godawful employee enters the scene. When shown the hair, she reportedly said something like: What do you want me to do about it — I didn’t put it there!

The teachers asked to see her manager, but the manager — working behind the bar and presumably also taxed by the unexpected traffic — said she was too busy to speak with them. Then the owner, who had been helping out in the kitchen, appeared.

Restaurant owners in general are feisty individualists (Ayn Rand might well have used a restaurateur or chef, instead of an architect, as her chief protagonist). They have to be in order to survive the minefield of regulations, competition and bizarre staffing practices that helps doom most new eateries. Mark Rogers is no different in this regard, only more so. He began his mini-empire, as I hear it, with a video store in the early ’80s.

Amid the tension of a nutsy Monday lunchtime, the whiny teachers set him off. And he told them where to go.

When you listen to his apology on KCCI8, you get the impression that he meant what he said to the teachers, if not his apology.

“The interesting part now isn’t the salad hair — an excellent source of protein, by the way — as much as the lightning speed with which everyone between the two rivers found out about the incident and formed an opinion,” Marc Hansen wrote in the Register.

“The lunch was Monday. By Tuesday afternoon, people were e-mailing and twittering and blogging. The great social networking machine was hitting on all cylinders.

“It would have taken months to get the word out by rotary phone. It only took a few hours with a computer. A teacher at Lincoln South Academy, Marsha Richards, composed an e-mail from her home computer telling colleagues how Legends had ruined their dining experience, insulting them and their profession in the process.”

This is the world today and there is no escaping it. Corporate strategies and individual relationships must take this realty into account or expect to pay a price.

Which brings us to Hansen’s final point:

Jonnie Wright could see it coming. A longtime Des Moines multimedia maven, Wright owns a company called the Buyosphere.

He does customer service training and secret shopping. About a year ago, he consulted with Rogers but nothing came of it, which is too bad.

Losing a customer, Wright says, costs a company at least 10 times more than keeping a customer happy. He has a theory on keeping the customer satisfied: The minute the employee walks in the door, it’s “butt-kissing time.” Which is why it’s crucial that business owners hire happy people.

You can train skills, Wright says, but you can’t train happy. People with naturally sunny dispositions go to great lengths to avoid saying they didn’t put that hair in the salad.

“On a multiple-choice test on how to handle the situation,” Wright says, “that would be the joke answer.”

Wright is writing a book, “Customer Dis-service: Tales from the Check-out Counter.”

When the book comes out, don’t be surprised to see a chapter on Legends and the Des Moines teachers. And one on the bird.

Wright was secret shopping at a sports bar in West Des Moines when he came upon a dead bird in the parking lot. He placed it next to the entrance to see what would happen.

The answer was nothing. When he returned two weeks later, the bird was still waiting for a proper burial.

This was not a good sign. The owner soon went bankrupt. The restaurant business is hard enough without dead birds, salad hairs and, of course, send buttons.

The challenge out of Des Moines isn’t only to businesses with sloppy customer relations (and that includes media businesses).

It’s also to media’s role as a reporter of news and an organizer of perspectives.

The speed at which news breaks will keep getting faster, and the news media has to keep pace — with a smile, and no excuses.

Facebook and Twitter are keeping pace, and their successors will do an even better job. Unless mainstream media creates for itself a place at the table, those young upstarts will eat its lunch and leave nothing behind.

— Ed Weintrob

• • •

“Network” author Paddy Chayesfsky discusses his movie in a very calm interview with Dinah Shore:

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8 responses to “Every merchant’s nightmare: Customers who are mad as hell, and aren’t going to take it anymore

  1. Great Article! Its time for all business owner to wake-up and realize the power of the internet. What happens here stays here doesn’t apply any more. And one bad review can cost you tons of potential business; since everyone Googles every restaurant before going to eat to see what others have had to said. That’s why i encourage all restaurant owners to offer some kind of incentive for the their happy customers to leave a positive reviews about their restaurant maybe 10% off their next check or a free drink or what ever they think a review is worth.

  2. Great piece! Our Des Moines ad agency blog, AdMavericks, approached this story from the “employee as an extension of your brand” perspective.

    http://admavericks.com/2010/02/19/worst-of-the-week-legends-american-grill/

  3. Great Article! Congratulations MAC and http://www.DesMoinesLocalLive.com!!!

  4. Admavericks.com has a nice piece on this subject. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  5. Very thorough piece; good model for combining the range of traditional and “new-media” sources available for a story and it’s emergent themes and “lessons.”

  6. This is a great post (and thanks for including the Paddy Chayesfsky on Dinah Shore clip– one of my favorites) that really resonates with me.

    I firmly believe that if you or your business interacts with the general public, you HAVE TO have a social media strategy. Even the simple act of listening can be a strategy– in some cases, a complete strategy.

    I think these brands are doing a good job:
    @EWGrove
    @geeksquadhelp
    @my_sweethearts
    @PomOnline
    @ShoeSmitten
    @SubwayFreshBuzz

  7. The facebook page is not only clear and powerful it is also illegal. An individual has the right to voice their opinions, however when you openly recuit new people to interrupt a business you are breaking the law.
    What no one is talking about is the immaturity of this website. Mark Rogers had the guts to get on television and apologize. He left an open invitation for those offended to come to his restaurant and he would apologize and buy them dinner. He has called the school board and district to try and come to a resolution. He has contacted Marc Hansen(by the way not the first time he has written a one sided editorial against Legend’s) to try and end this and he has been ignored. It seems to me he is sorry and now the only one trying to act like and adult.

    P.S. I find it curious none of the other eight have come out to say anything either.

  8. Thanks, Ed, found you through our pal Michael Libbie! : )

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