A business recently closed in the retail district near my home and coworking space. It was an entertainment and restaurant concept that theoretically filled a need in the market.
After it closed, one of the executives from the parent company of the small chain spoke to the local newspaper and said the concept had done well on the entertainment side, but it struggled on the restaurant/bar part of the business.
He seemed surprised, which suggested to me -- someone who attempted to eat there many times -- that he had never gone to that location for food anonymously. This establishment delivered a fine entertainment experience, but it had a poorly run understaffed bar and restaurant. It even had a compelling menu that was somewhat unique to the area, but offering food on a menu and serving excellent food to customers are two entirely different things.
It's all about customer service
This wasn't a traditional small business, but rather a small player in its space with only a few locations for each of its concepts. It's definitely a small enough company that upper management should not have lost touch with the poor customer service offered at the defunct location.
The company created a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Its bar and restaurant area was perpetually understaffed, because business was poor. The weak workforce became a problem if even a few customers trickled in. The space was huge with multiple eating and drinking areas served by only one or two waiters. The staff tried hard but quickly got overwhelmed, which left many customers like myself with a bad first impression (or many bad impressions if they returned like I did).
As a small business owner, it's important to understand that you can never shortchange customer service. That means being prepared for a worst-case scenario but also the best-case situation. You could have employees work on sidework during slow times, and they can be pulled in to help if business picks up. It's also important for an owner or manager to have a willingness to jump in and handle customers when it gets unexpectedly busy.
In the worst case scenario, where an unexpected rush and no available staff, get in front of it. Apologize to customers. Explain what has happened and offer them a gift card, comp their meal or do something else to truly make good. People can be forgiving when they understand that you acknowledge the problem too.
Be on top of things
Customer service mistakes happen. It's how you handle them that sets the tone for your business. Consumers want to feel like a business's manager or owner is in control and has sympathy for their situation. Sometimes, it only takes a little bit of personal attention to not only fix a problem but make the customer actually feel good about your business.
Most customer service efforts come from the tone you set. Make sure you have adequate staffing and that your employees are well trained. Go over potential problems and how they should be handled to make sure your people are ready to respond when a customer is disappointed or the lunch rush gets out of control.
It takes a lot of little things to get customer service right. But not putting in the effort guarantees you will fail.