Understanding the Other Side of a Bad Customer Experience | Noodles being spooned into takeout box

Understanding the Other Side of a Bad Customer Experience

Creating great customer experiences and delivering great customer service almost always boils down to one thing: being able to understand the experience of customers — to walk a mile in their shoes and to build a better shoe or create a better walking path with that knowledge.

It begins by understanding what your customers are going through, especially when the experience is not a positive one.

A Tale of Takeout

My wife and I were both exhausted. On most nights, my wife cooks dinner, as my culinary repertoire is limited to frozen pizzas and eggs. However, on Tuesday, she just didn’t feel like it, and she decided to grab takeout from a place nearby — but not that nearby.

She usually only gets takeout from this restaurant coming home from the office. It’s on the way and really only adds 15-20 minutes to the commute home; to leave the house and get it is another matter entirely. It’s about 45-60 minutes total, 15-20 minutes of car time each way and about 15-20 minutes parking and going into the restaurant. There is virtually no parking in front of this Japanese/Sushi/Hibachi restaurant in a busy shopping center; you almost always end up parking in a separate lot, sometimes pretty far away.

Understanding the Other Side of a Bad Customer Experience | Noodles being spooned into takeout box

Not the actual food

My wife arrived back at the house with the food after almost an hour. I was ravenous. As I opened up my food and began to plunge my fork in, I noticed something. This was not what we ordered. We opened her food, and it was the same situation. I won’t spend extra paragraphs explaining our dietary restrictions and why we couldn’t just eat what we had. But the short version is that neither of us could eat it. It wasn’t just the wrong product, it was an unusable product.

Of course, we were reminded of how important it is to check your order before leaving, and my wife, after listening to me quote Joe Pesci’s famous (and unprintable) line about drive-thrus from Lethal Weapon 2, called the restaurant and explained the situation to them. We might not have checked our food, but in the end, we also shouldn’t have to. The restaurant filled our order with the wrong product.

My wife was very calm, perhaps too calm in retrospect, and after some fumbling with English on the other side, my wife was put on hold. Someone else came on the phone and after some time, the situation was semi-resolved. I say “semi” because we left the experience with a more negative view of the restaurant.

In the end, the restaurant staff did a few things right, and a few things wrong, and in those actions are lessons for all on the front lines of service.


  • They understood why we didn’t want to dedicate another hour to going back down there and getting remade food.
  • They didn’t challenge our story (much) or treat us as if we were trying to run a scam.
  • They were generally nice and non-confrontational. We took the food and were now calling back asking for a refund and saying we didn’t want to come back for new food. Many restaurants would have not taken our word for it.


  • They initially challenged my wife about the order. “That’s how that dish comes.” She had to explain that we ordered the same thing every time and it never came like this.
  • They did not refund our credit card but forced us to take a store credit. This action might be one of the reasons they didn’t argue about the refund. If we had pushed for a credit card refund, who knows. But my wife was tired and didn’t feel like arguing about it.
  • They really didn’t seem to understand our side of the experience. We didn’t just get a wrong order; we lost an hour of our time and were let down when we both, tired and hungry, went to eat, couldn’t, and then had to not only call back and deal with a customer service call but then still cook our own meals. (I ended up making eggs after all.) It wasn’t the end of the world by any means, but it was frustrating and a let down at the end of a long day.

A Product Failure Is Also an Experience Failure

One of the reasons this restaurant’s service recovery gets a poor grade is that it only dealt with the product failure and not the entire experience. They made good on the product failure with fairly low effort — offering us the credit — but they didn’t seem to understand the larger failure — just how bad the experience was for us as customers. We didn’t just get a bad dish, we dropped an hour of our lives for their product, paid for it, and couldn’t even use it. The only fix was to drive all the way back down there, park and pickup, and drive back, losing another hour of our evening before eating.

As someone who talks a lot about being smart about service recovery and giving great service without giving away the store, I don’t expect every customer service situation to be solved with monetary compensation. In this case, they had a few options to show their empathy and to make some sort of gesture that indicated they understood what a bad experience this was.

Here are five ways they could have delivered a better service recovery without being lavish:

  1. They could have offered to deliver the food. There are many reasons they might not offer this, but it is an option in many similar situations.
  2. They could have used much better service language. They were pleasant, but their language did not demonstrate much remorse for the situation. There might have been a little language barrier behind some of this but not too much.
  3. They could have offered to have us come back down for the corrected order and offered to comp the food, which they did not.
  4. They could have offered to remake the food and then to make it as easy as possible for us. “If you can come back, we can get the order started right now. Just call us when you are a couple of minutes away, and we will have someone at the curb with your order. You won’t even have to get out of your car.
  5. They could have given the credit and offered to throw something in on top. The beauty of the restaurant industry is that comps are cheap. It’s easy to make a gesture that doesn’t cost the company much. Try doing a make-good when you mess up a farmer’s quarter million dollar farm equipment order and he misses a few days of his key fertilization window as a result. What’s your make good then? A branded beer koozie? The restaurant could easily have said, “To apologize for the inconvenience, we are going to add a free drink or appetizer on us next time you come in.” The gesture would have cost them a couple of bucks and gotten much more than that in goodwill.

We weren’t looking for the world; in fact, we weren’t looking for anything. If they had offered any of the solutions above that involved us driving back, I doubt we would have taken them up on it. We really didn’t want to lose the hour, but the gesture would have mattered, and we would have left the experience with a more positive view.

None of their actions demonstrated that they understood what we were experiencing as customers.

Will we go back to this restaurant again? Well, of course, we have a credit there. However, we will go back more than just to use our credit. There are few decent dining choices close to us, and it is a good restaurant that we have been patronizing for over five years. We’ve had a lot of good meals there, and it is a favorite location to take visitors.

But my guess is that we will go less, and more importantly, we will likely choose other options more when ordering food for take-out. We had just started getting takeout from this restaurant, and it would have been an entirely new revenue stream from us as customers.

In the end, we’ll still be customers; we’ll just spend less. And that is the danger of not understanding the other side of a bad customer experience.

Photo credit: http://depositphotos.com/portfolio-1616053.html


By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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