When I owned and ran the Magpie Cafe in Upwey, I had my encounters with many different characters. There was the Goth-Punk couple who became two of my greatest friends, the Lady with the Duck (and yes, it was a real duck), the over-the-top-conspiracy-theorist-landlord, a cross-dressing-Jedi, and a whole host of other characters I couldn’t make up.
It often felt like I was waltzing into an issue of Sandman. I wouldn’t trade it in those memories for the world, not even the bad ones…
And there are some bad ones…
Like the first time I had to deal with a bad customer.
Let me clarify here: there are ‘difficult’ customers, who are tricky enough to deal with, but all in all they’ll come back time and again with friends. ‘Difficult’ customers just have very particular styles and personalities. Like wife who would always order her husband’s food and drink, even while he was sitting right there, and send the milkshake back seven or eight times because it wasn’t chocolate-y enough and “he likes strong flavours”. Good thing they had a beautiful dog…
Then you’ve got ‘bad’ customers. These are the ones who make your life miserable just because they can, or don’t know any better. They’re the sort of people who you’re terrified to see again because they practically reduced you to tears the first time they walked in. Luckily they don’t often come back.
Bad customers make your life impossible because they believe they set the standards.
Now, before you all go and say ‘the customer is always right’, yes — unless they’re being beyond the pale f*ing unreasonable, in which case they can go and be right somewhere else.
Such was the case with Ice Coffee Lady.
The Case of the Ice Coffee Lady
She came in one Saturday right in the middle of lunch rush. Those of you who’ve worked at a restaurant or cafe or whatnot know exactly what I mean when I talk about this time, but for those of you who don’t let me sum it up for you:
During a rush period you never have enough hands, never enough staff, and meals can’t come out fast enough, you’ve got drinks orders backed up, and you’re run off your feet — adrenaline is pumping and it is amazing.
Now, Ice Coffee Lady comes in, waits in line and comes up to the counter to place her order — the usual MO during one of our lunch rushes — I smile at her and take her order: ham, tomato cheese toastie and an ice coffee (no whipped cream or added sugar). Okay , easy. Order goes back to the kitchen, I turn back to take another order while my Supergirl Izzy — our one and only waitress — zips around like a hummingbird delivering coffees left right and centre.
Five minutes after she’s placed her order, Ice Coffee Lady flags me down — not Supergirl Izzy, me — so I come take the last order down, pass directions back to the kitchen and trot out to go and see what the problem is.
The table she had chosen hadn’t been cleared yet because, as she could clearly see, we were incredibly busy. This was a problem because she said it put her off her appetite. Fair point, I don’t really like sitting with anyone else’s dishes on my table either. I cleared the table for her and came back with a wash cloth and the spray.
“Is it organic?” she asked me, with regards to the spray. This was a completely normal question in the Magpie Cafe, as many of the things we served/used were organic.
“Yes, it is. It’s actually just boiled water with lemon, lime and rosemary,” I told her. The look on her face was priceless, she was actually disappointed that she couldn’t complain about it! I’m not joking here, I really could tell.
Off I went back to hostessing an Supergirl Izzy brought out Ice Coffee Lady’s drink. Only to bring it right back because apparently I was her waitress and she thought it wasn’t fair that I wouldn’t get her tips — a. as if she was going to leave any and b. this was Australia, not the US! We don’t live off our tips! — and even though Supergirl Izzy explained to her that we had a free system she insisted. I’d like to think Ice Coffee Lady was doing it to be nice instead of horribly inconvenient, but there you go.
I brought out her coffee.
It’s not cold enough.
I go back, add ice.
Now it’s too chunky.
Back again, run it through the blender.
“I said no ‘whipped cream’ not ‘no ice cream’,” is the next complaint.
“There’s ice cream in it, ma’am,” I reply, “I can add more in if you like.”
Long pause. By this stage she’s drunk most of it.
“No, that’s fine.” In order to try and develop a rapport, I talk about how we use Jersey milk, so it’s creamier. She goes off on a rant about how the milk industry is evil — this from a woman who just drank half a milky beverage. Luckily, I’m saved when the Lady with the Duck comes in for a take-away coffee order.
Supergirl Izzy brings out Ice Coffee Lady’s toastie. Now, we always presented our ‘HTC’ as a closed sandwich, toasted, decorated with spinach leaves or parsley.
Turns out she’s ‘allergic’ to spinach.
Okay, no messing around with allergies. Back to the kitchen it goes, a new one is forthcoming. It takes a while because we’re still incredibly busy! She complains about the time. I do my best to explain without making excuses.
Five minutes later she comes up to the counter, claiming she’s ‘had enough of the wait and can’t be bothered anymore’. I apologize profusely: “waiting periods do get stretched a little bit more than normal during our lunch rush, but it is nearly ready if you’d like to wait just a little longer.” She seems mollified, goes back to her table.
Meal served. Surprise, surprise she doesn’t send it back. She eats the whole thing, finishes her drinks and flags me down for the bill.
Normally, we don’t bring bills to the table, but I figured it was easier just to play along. I print out the bill, put it on a pretty plate with some chocolate kisses I keep in the fridge to serve with childrens’ babychinos. Off the bill goes.
“What’s this?” she demands, poking a finger angrily at the HTC on the bill.
“That’s the menu price, ma’am,” I say politely.
“It’s outrageous!” she snaps. I don’t point out that she knew it cost $11 when she ordered it, or that the description clearly reads ‘organic ham, organic sourdough bread, organic tomatoes, organic cheese’.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but that’s the cost,” I explain demurely.
“Well, I’m not paying that for a sandwich!”
“It’s an organic sandwich,” I say, “we source all our ingredients from ethical and organic suppliers, and we try to do so locally. I’m sorry you think the price is unreasonable.”
“And that coffee was the most disgusting coffee I’ve ever had in my life!”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I reply again, and then, because I can’t help myself and she’s getting on my nerves — and nearly making me cry — “everyone else seems to enjoy it though. It’s a Fairtrade Organic blend roasted right here in the valley.”
“Well it’s awful.”
“Again, I’m sorry it did not meet your expectations.” I don’t point out that if she hated it all so much she shouldn’t have consumed it all.
Other people are looking at us at this point because she’s not exactly being quiet.
“Well…I’ll pay, but I’m never coming back here, and I’m telling my friends how awful this place is.” I’m not kidding, she actually said that. I just smiled and took her money, gave her her change and cheerfully wished her a great afternoon. She left in a huff.
I half wonder if she was suffering from something else, or if she’d just had a really bad day.
She was back the following weekend. And it was the SAME DRAMA AGAIN.
We’ve all had customers like this, no matter what industry we’re in. It’s all very stressful, and if you’re not able to rise above it, treatment like this will literally break you down.
Let’s think for a second about one thing: it’s been four years since that first encounter, and I still remember it, word for word, blow by blow.
Customer relationships aren’t actually difficult to build. I realized very quickly that all I really had to do was listen, not just when they spoke to me, but also when they spoke to each other. It’s an invaluable way to learn their names, whether they’re married, have kids, work. All of this stuff meant that I could learn how to nurture these customers and encourage them to keep coming back. I’ll tell you about the Pumpkin Teacher later, because she’s really a star example of what I mean there.
To conclude I just want to say that customer relationships go both ways: just as we affect our customers and try to build a rapport with them, our customers learn about us. It’s not a one-way street, and that’s important. Letting customers see you as a person, and not just as part of your industry means you’re letting them see that you’re human — and humans crave connectivity.