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Friday, April 1, 2011

A Bad Taste

Bear with me as I beg your indulgence. This recount of an unusual experience at dinner tonight does have a relationship with education and school. Let me explain.
Brenda and I went out to dinner this evening. It seemed like a long week for both of us and we looked forward to relaxing and enjoying a nice meal together. We chose a small restaurant that I had been to before, although this would be her first time there. I appreciated the meal I had experienced during my prior visit. We were the first arrivals but others wandered in every now and then. There was music scheduled to begin an hour after we sat down.
I imagine that most people elect to eat at a restaurant to either relax or celebrate or acknowledge something positive, as opposed to going out for dinner when you feel terrible or indifferent. Restaurants operate in the service industry. That is, the purpose of restaurants is oriented toward supplying customers with a pleasant and memorable experience so it will entice the diners to return again and again. You pay for the meal in exchange for well prepared food, an accommodating atmosphere, and positive customer service.
Ah, but this last element, customer service was sorely lacking tonight. The waitress fumbled through our order – several small plates of different types of foods. Meanwhile, another waitress could be overheard (it’s a small place) explaining to customers that “today is like one of those days that you wish you could erase.” That should have been a precursor for the meal. A couple of dishes of food arrived, but we were without a main entrée. After what seemed like fifteen minutes, and another chorus of lament by the other waitress with the apologetic refrain about erasing the day (to yet another nearby table of people altogether) our waitress returned with two dishes we had not ordered. She simply went back to the kitchen with them after we reminded her of the missing main entrée again. On her way to the kitchen she checked with a couple at the adjacent table and asked them if they had ordered (they had twenty minutes ago and were waiting impatiently). Nonetheless, she apologized and asked them to order once more.
Our main entrée arrived, but with another dish that we had not ordered (that makes three altogether). Brenda asked for another pot of hot tea. The waitress repeated her trip to the kitchen and came back almost immediately with a plate of food to the table behind us, whereupon she announced to the group (she obviously knew personally), “Here, I stole this from another order to speed things up.” These words were not reassuring. Within a few minutes the waitress brought out the food for the couple that had just re-ordered their meal, thus indicating that their order had gone in on time, she simply forgot she had submitted the request. They did not look happy.
The food was very good, the service was very bad. The co-owner appeared to sense that the operation of the restaurant was not smooth tonight. They have only been open for business for two or three months. He made the rounds among the tables soliciting feedback and extending apologies. They were having a bad day. Again, I believe that most people expect to engage with a positive experience in exchange for the price they pay for the meal. If the restaurant staff had just come right out and announced that they were experiencing some difficulties then we could have excused ourselves and gone elsewhere for a pleasant and enjoyable meal. I empathize with them. They had problems with the menu that was misprinted and the absence of a member of the wait-staff and the owner had to move her daughter as well as her eight year old granddaughter and….  That’s okay. I understand. It happens.  I feel bad – but – I arrived at the restaurant in good spirits willing to pay for a rather expensive meal. I did not come for inferior customer service – and a costly meal. We left dispirited and disappointed. It’s too bad because the food was delicious.
Now, what’s this have to do with education?
Each day hundreds of learners arrive at Heatly, at all ages, at all stages. Each of them brings their hope and promise of being another day closer to their dreams. They rely on our staff for support and direction, for assistance and accommodation, for care and compassion. They expect our very best. They need our finest effort. Anything less than that will not only be disappointing but it could have significant consequences measured in diminished growth and lost opportunities in their future. Many of these learners are dependent on us for their success. We can’t let them down.
I won’t return to that restaurant. Why would I when there are so many alternatives. Research shows that one disgruntled customer passes their negative perceptions to a couple of friends who subsequently share the news here and there until, on the average, a little over one hundred people have heard about the bad experience. That’s terrible word-of-mouth communication for the business.
I trust that staff members at Heatly realize that this spread of bad reviews that expands like ripples among dissatisfied customers is no different than what may happen each and every time we display poor customer service. Now, more than ever, with private, parochial, charter schools, and home schooling sprinkled throughout every district, schools cannot afford to be insensitive and unresponsive. The restaurant business has always been very competitive. Education has only recently entered the competitive arena. Our survival rests on providing a quality product with high performing customer service and value added experiences that enhance the interaction between client and provider.

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