Avoid getting burnt

AMIDST an Australian summer heat wave the heat is also on small businesses to perform and meet customer expectations.  Dining with a group of friends last evening got me pondering what a small business can do to avoid getting totally burnt when things go wrong.

Shown to a corner table it took a few minutes for us to register that the restaurant was extremely hot.  A staff member had been adjusting the sole split air conditioner for the very large space when we came in.  Unfortunately it appeared we were in for a hot dinner as we were too polite to walk out.

Asking for another table in better alignment with the split air conditioner made it somewhat tolerable but the occupants of a large table booked for a party were looking decidedly red faced as the evening progressed.

Yes, the meal was acceptable as was the service. But then it got worse.  At checkout we were informed that receipts couldn’t be issued as the EFTPOS machine wasn’t working properly.  That wasn’t a problem we assured her.  But then the billing system froze altogether and we were left standing for another five minutes as the clearly frustrated front of house manager tried to sort it out.

“I’m so sorry,” she apologised. “First our air conditioning broke down, then the EFTPOS, and now this.”

Her words told me a lot. It was one of those horror evenings where everything was going wrong.  Knowing that the restaurant was normally air conditioned made a big difference because we were about to walk out and give a bad review to all our friends. I was puzzled why she hadn’t mentioned it beforehand instead of constantly asking how our meal was.

Eventually we did manage to pay our bill and depart.  Overnight I’ve been reflecting on what they could have done better on what was clearly a disastrous day for this small business. I doubt that any of the patrons will return and the bad reviews will be spread far and wide.

In my opinion the staff should have apologised up front for the air conditioning break down so we knew straight away that this was not normal.  Everyone likes to sympathise when something goes wrong and being informed makes us much more forgiving.

If that had been my manager I would also have encouraged and authorised her to automatically make goodwill gestures to keep customers happy when unfortunate circumstances impact on expectations.

At the very least they could have offered ice for the water or a free drink to help keep us cool.  What could have really changed our attitude and possibly enticed us back would have been to offer at checkout a discounted meal voucher for our group of four to return at a later date.

Meanwhile the clock is ticking towards tonight’s opening.  What are their chances of getting someone to fix the air conditioning on a weekend?  Should they cancel bookings, inform staff not to come in, and simply close the restaurant?

What else can they do to prevent getting totally burnt I wonder?

KERRY ANDERSON:  Author of 'Entrepreneurship It's Everybody's Business', Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities.