Sunday, November 20, 2011

When Customer Service Is Annoying It's Not Customer Service

What do you do when you suggest wedding cake designs to a client and they eventually decide on something that you don’t like as much as other ideas that you had? Or when a customer comes to you with a design that you just don't want to do (fountains come to mind.) It’s frustrating, but it happens. There’s a fine line between suggesting designs and forcing your own preferences on a client when they want something else.

Let me tell you about Ukrops.

When I moved to Richmond there was a grocery store that was locally owned that people just LOVED. People kept telling me “You just moved here? You need to go to Ukrops!” with a lot of heavy breathing, like this place was the grocery mecca of the world.

Well, after hearing about how amazing the place was I went, and was surprised to find…a regular old grocery store. Big whoop. Plus, since the store was just a small local chain, it apparently didn’t have the negotiating power that a lot of larger chains did, and their prices were a lot higher. So why would I want to shop there?

Oh, their fabulous customer service! People told me.

Well, as far as I could see, the things that were different about their customer service compared to other grocery stores was that they had people who carried the groceries out to your car for you. Whether you liked it or not.

Here’s something about me. I do not like having someone else carry my groceries out to my car. I hate making chatsy small talk, and I don’t like feeling that I have a servant pushing my cart for me when I’m perfectly capable of doing it myself. I can see if you have a baby or a broken leg or something, but most stores will offer to help if you ask and it’s obvious that you have a need for it anyway.

So when Ukrops finally sold their stores to a larger chain last year, and everyone in town was weeping openly at the thought of something changing in Richmond (Virginians have a reputation for not being good with change) I was glad to have another grocery shopping option without the cart-pushers to look forward to.

But nooooooo.

Since the new grocery chain could smell the wrath of the old guard in the air, they’ve tried to keep some Ukrops-y things in place to pacify people. One of them being that they still try to carry your groceries out to your car.

I have to tell them that I can take the cart out myself, and they actually argue with you about it. “Are you sure? It’s no problem. We’ll take them out, we don’t mind. Are you sure? Are you sure?” Well, I am sure, and if I tell you that I don’t want to have someone take them out, then don’t follow me out of the store! Which is exactly what one woman did. Followed me out, took the cart from me as I was pushing it back into the store, and pretty much gave me a scolding “WE could have done that for you! You didn’t need to do take them out yourself!” Good Lord.

I was thinking about this when I had a client who came in for a consult and was covered with tattoos, piercings, etc. Based on that, I was kind of excited to think that she might be open to doing something unconventional for her wedding cake. But it turned out that the cake that she really, really wanted was plain white with flowers and a Precious Moments topper. The wedding cake and the outward appearance of the client did not match at all.

So you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you also can’t force someone to do something that they don’t want to and call it good customer service. I could have tried to get her to choose a different design that I thought would be “better” for her, but she knew what she wanted.

So that’s what she got, and I made her extremely happy with the finished cake, which is what I’m here for in the long run. I want my clients to be happy with their wedding cake experience. I don’t want them to leave the consult thinking that I tried to force them to let me push their cart out to their car when they wanted to do it themselves, if you know what I mean.

I have this discussion with other bakers fairly often. How much is the cake “yours” and how much is it “theirs.” I tend to take the side that the client is obviously paying for it, it’s their wedding, and it’s their cake. I’m there to help design it and execute the design that they want, not the one that I want. Other people take the side of saying that they’re creating the cake, so they get to decide what they’re creating, and they set more limits on what they want to do or not do.

I do have some types of cakes that I won't do, cupcakes being the obvious one. For most designs, though, I let the client be the guide.

The hard thing is to decide how much either way you want to go, without ending up being the cart-pusher against their will. Where do you fall in this debate? How far would you go with a client to get them to choose a design that you think would be “better?” Or would you just refuse to do a design that you didn't like?

Kara Buntin owns A Cake To Remember LLC, custom wedding cakes in Richmond VA


Jamie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kara said...

Agh! I just thought of the perfect example of pushing a design down someone's throat and not listening to the client...Remember that episode of Trading Spaces where the designer put straw on the wall of somebody's house then was offended when they were mad? That's the epitome of the bad designer. The clients had little kids and to glue straw on their walls was really not a practical design that they could live with, but the designer said "They don't know that they want this, but they do." Oh, it was so bad...

Jamie said...

"They don't know they want this..." Oh no! That's awful. Yeah, that is another unacceptable situation for sure.

Kara said...

Look, here's a picture of them gluing the straw to the walls...It was horrible to watch

Jamie said...

That was horrid!!

Audric Montuno said...

I work within the design profession and this is a topic that comes up quite frequently, too. However, for us, the client is usually not just the person (or company) paying our fees, but also a wider segment of the public population.

I think that a distinction should be made between what the client truly wants, and how they hope to achieve it. Intent, versus execution. People usually know what they want, but don't know how to express it fully or how to necessarily achieve the final result.

It is usually our duty to achieve the client's intent to the very best of our abilities, and to figure out what that is exactly by listening carefully and trying to discern the reasons behind why a client makes a certain request. If they ask for swags and ruffles and pleats and lace, it may not be because they want to replicate a Victorian-era curtain shop, but are instead looking to have a visual softness and texture incorporated into the design. Whether you actually end up incorporating all 15 of the fabric swatches they bring as inspiration or synthesize them into something more simple, you can be sure that in the end you would have done what they wanted.

If a client requests something that clashes or conflicts with the overall intent, I do think it is our duty to make that point known to the client, and suggest a way that the conflict could be resolved. With all things design, there is always some sort of solution just the same way that there is no one right solution.

The worse thing that I could imagine would be to follow a client's directions to the letter, and, on the final delivery day, have them say "That's not what I wanted!"

Kara said...

Audric, that's very true. Part of what a professional in any industry needs to do is to tell clients what will and won't work. Something that seems good in theory isn't always good in the real world. In the same way, if someone is saying that they want something elegant then starts talking about putting camouflage on their cake, it's up to you to redirect. I jsut had a client email me about makign an entire cake fuschia, which would have been pretty with the other design elements. However, I explained about the amount of food coloring in fuschia buttercream and she changed her mind. That's the kind of thing that people who have experience in a field need to do to help clarify the client's needs while also making sure a disaster isn't going to happen.

What I have trouble with is the idea that people have that they know what you want even when you're clearly telling them that it isn't. (The grocery store cart thing being the prime example of that.) It's someone pretending to be "helpful" by really being arrogant and assuming that they're right and the client is wrong.