The Lettuce that broke the camel’s back – when customer expectations aren’t met.

I know what you’re thinking. How on earth could a lettuce have driven me to breaking point?

Let me paint the picture. I am often away on business and on this particular occasion it was my fourth consecutive night away from home. I arrived at the hotel later than I’d hoped and having lived off a variety of M&S salads for the last three nights, I was feeling a bit worn thin. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with them, but no matter how many times I referred to it as ‘having a carpet picnic’ to make it sound jolly, it was still a bit of a lonely experience. The cherry on the icing has to be eating out of plastic containers with a doll’s sized spork (an ingenious creation of a fork crossed with a spoon that managed to do neither very well). So, I really wanted to console myself and that was why I decided to ‘treat myself’ to room service.

In a bid to keep healthy (hard when you are on the road) I ‘treated myself’ to halloumi and roasted vegetables with a side order of a salad wedge. ‘Ooooo’, I thought to myself, ‘a salad wedge..’. I conjured up an image of lots of fresh chunkily cut tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, cucumber and maybe even a bit of beetroot if I was lucky and some dressing. 

I placed my order and waited, salivating at the prospect of my ‘salad wedge’. I had a quick shower and I got changed into my lounge pants (just for the avoidance of doubt, I mean my elasticated leggings). My food arrived in 20 minutes, delivered by a lovely, friendly person who carefully placed the tray on the table. The plate was covered by a metal cover – not the kind that looks like an overturned dog bowl, oh no – a proper, domed impressive plate cover. I mean, this salad wedge clearly had sufficient reverence from the chef and his staff for the food based splendour I had imagined…and so feeling quite excited I lifted the cover off.

What greeted me on the plate was the halloumi, some roasted veg, a bit of tomato and half an iceberg lettuce. Let me repeat that. Half an iceberg lettuce. This was my ‘salad wedge’. I mean on what planet would you describe half an iceberg lettuce plonked on a plate as a ‘salad wedge’?  

Disappointed doesn’t do justice to the sinking feeling in my empty and complaining stomach or how I felt as I surveyed the plate. Maybe it was because I’d been away from home all week. Maybe it was because I was tired from travelling. Maybe it was because I’d been looking forward to some good grub and was greeted with half a lettuce. I genuinely could have cried.

There was nothing about the lettuce that could have warmed me to it. It had been cut in half (one positive I suppose) but that was about it. It hadn’t been washed because there were still obvious traces of where it had been grown, including some extra insect protein for good measure – just to prove its provenance. It hadn’t even been griddled. My appetite and my mood took a nosedive.

Actually, no, not just a nosedive, I mean I was bloody furious. Furious that the hotel restaurant would pass this off as a salad. Furious that whoever had put it together hadn’t cared enough for their customer to even check the lettuce was clean. Furious that my one night of treating myself had turned out this way. Furious that as a customer it would be down to me to point out the bleeding obvious. So did I complain in this moment of fury? Nope. And here’s why.

I couldn’t bear the thought of traipsing down to reception in my lounge pants at nearly 10 o’clock at night to complain about half a lettuce and the ridiculousness of it all. Would I have been able to constructively articulate my deep feelings of disappointment and the impact it had had on me to the night manager in a way that didn’t sound slightly bonkers? No. Did I have any faith that if even if I did make it to reception that anything good would come of it? No. Did I just want to get my knackered self to bed so I could be ready for the next day? Yes.

So what did I do? I let rip in the customer feedback survey the hotel emailed me the next day and were so keen for me to complete. Did I hear from them? What do you think? And what else did I do? Well I stood up in front of an audience of 200 people  the following week and told them all about “lettuce-gate” as part of my introduction.

The reason why I talked about it was because of the obvious hilariousness of being wound up by half a lettuce, but also I’d had time to reflect and decide what I wanted to say.

There are (at least) four things for me that came from my experience that have everything to do with complaints handling, and why we do what we do to help businesses get their handling of complaints right.

  • When is the right time? I often hear people in businesses get really frustrated when customers don’t complain when they are ‘supposed to’. ‘If it was that bad why didn’t they tell us earlier?’. We cannot and shouldn’t expect customers to tell us ‘in the moment’ when something is wrong. And we shouldn’t make the assumption that because a customer didn’t tell us ‘at the time’ it makes their complaint any less valid or had any less of an impact on them that someone who did.
  • Be clear about what you are offering. Being vague or dressing something up to sound better than it really is doesn’t help. Both create mistrust and/or a lack of confidence – and they are two reasons behind why customers escalate their complaints because their expectations haven’t been met.
  • Listen and show you’ve listened. If you ask for customer feedback and ‘give it all that’ about being interested in their experiences and wanting to improve, respond to the customer when they tell you something. Ignore us at your peril. Some of us can stand up in front of 200 people and talk about it. Some of us will turn to social media, which has an audience of millions. No business really wants that.
  • Know your onions. If you don’t know what you are doing, or don’t care about what you are doing, it shows. Grilling lettuce is fashionable and while the chef was clearly looking to imitate the fashion, they failed miserably. The same with handling complaints. If you don’t have the knowledge or your heart isn’t in it, you’re presenting your customer with the equivalent of half a dirty iceberg lettuce on a plate.

And we get it, there’s nothing worse than dealing with a disappointed customer, because none of us set out with the intention of delivering something half arsed. But, when things haven’t gone right or something has disappointed, it’s about accepting the feedback and improving to make sure someone else doesn’t end up with the same disappointment over a poor experience or even a misrepresented ‘salad wedge’. 

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