Hurts So Good

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What do you do when a brand is so good no matter how bad it treats their customers?

While on vacation, I frequent a particular restaurant. It’s a basic health food restaurant (salads, smoothies, sandwiches, etc…) and everything is fresh and delicious (no kidding). The problem? The wait staff is terrible. To the point of embarrassment. The service is also slow (have you ever waited 45 minutes for a salad?). The owner doesn’t seem to care (I’ve seen this person have multiple fights with either customers or staff in the middle of the restaurant). If you head over to Yelp, you’ll see comments that not only agree with my sentiments but expand – in graphic details – on the challenges that this establishment faces.

Do you think this brand cares?

It doesn’t. They don’t respond on Yelp and if you complain at their location, they seem unaffected. How bad is it? I actually had great service there by one of the wait staff and when I told them how impressed I was, their answer was, "thanks… I know that we have a reputation for terrible service." Imagine that: the staff is letting their customers know that they have terrible service. On another trip, I did a take-out order (thinking that it might ease the pain). After having my order taken by a young woman who may as well have been doing her nails and speaking on her iPhone while taking my order, I wasn’t surprised that three items were missing. When I asked for them politely, she snarled back at me, "are you sure you asked for this stuff?"

The Soup Nazi.

It’s not a new story. The food is so good that we’re willing to endure the torture. Or – as one very prescient reviewer on Yelp says: "there have been times that I’ve tried to stay away (because of the problems with the service), but it’s just so good, I can’t! It’s like a bad relationship… the abuse hurts, but making up just tastes so good!" Brands are taught to remove as much friction as possible, but when you think about it (and, I mean really think about it), when the product is superior, you’re not only willing to let everything else go, you’re willing to endure actual pain. That’s the power of having a product that does more than simply doing what it’s supposed to do. As miserable of an experience that I have when I go there, the food overcomes every other aspect of the friction. There’s a lesson there for every Marketer: you can (literally) let everything else fall by the wayside when you have something unique (a non-commodity) that people want (and don’t care what else they have to go through). Amazingly, some brands do have their very own Steve Jobs reality distortion field.

I bet you thought this Blog post was going to be about Apple, didn’t you?


  1. This is a rare example of a company going against every last reasonable tactic a successful business needs to follow and still thrives. It reminds me of when you are with people who say “every company needs a website” or “all managers should blog” or “if you’re not on Facebook, you’re not in the game”. For the most part, they may be right but not in all cases.
    There’s a burger joint in the city where I grew up that is one of those decrepit joints where eye contact is a rarity and so is any evidence of cleaning supplies. The burgers are outstanding, the fries and gravy is legendary and the milkshakes will make you forget your name. In the 10 years I lived there, three burger chains opened and subsequently closed across the street. No website and a line-up outside.
    It boggles the mind, I would never suggest this business strategy to any client and there is no logical way to explain it. Grab me some napkins, I’m goin’ in.

  2. We have a classic example here in Europe, Ryanair. They are a budget/low-cost/no-frills airline based in Ireland. They have very little respect for their customers, cancel flights whenever they don’t sell enough seats, charge extra for whatever they can and have stripped the planes of luxuries like window blinds and reclining seats. But their flights can be very cheap and as a result they get a lot of passengers.

  3. Another great post… I’m a big proponent of the notion that whatever ranks highest in terms of our “emotional” or intangible drivers is what drives the purchase decision. In this instance, there’s something about the food beyond nourishment that makes you go back… Perhaps the fresh and delicious aspect makes you feel like you’re doing your body good and you’re helping rejuvenate yourself in your resting/vacation time. Consequently, that feeling of “doing good” trumps the yucky stuff.
    I didn’t expect the Apple connection but many of us (me included) like the cool factor of the products and stomach the steep prices to achieve that cool factor… so we can be a part of that club.
    At the end of it all, we’re human. And, we do things that seem anti logical… because they are driven y emotion.

  4. Mitch, would you go to a competitor if the food quality + location were just as good, but with better service? I should ask you where this place is – I see a business opportunity….

  5. Mitch as usual a very thought provoking post. I think we all have a story like your restaurant. I like how you tied it to a relationship. This is a good analogy. We are creatures of habit bad or good. That’s why we go back to the same toxic relationships. Its human nature. I have a dry cleaner like that. He yells at me if I don’t pick up my clothes on the date. I take it because he gives me my clothes exactly the way I want them. Not to mention I drop in to see him even if I do not have dirty clothes. He always gives me more than I expected every time. Something we can all learn from. Over delivering! Keep up the great work!

  6. Seems to me that this is actually a part of their brand, whether intentional or not. They’re using the ‘point at the pimple’ strategy. Like Buckley’s, ‘it tastes awful and it works’, they’re saying ‘our service may suck, but our food is so good that you’ll come anyway’. Doesn’t that almost make the food more enticing?

  7. I completely agree. I frequent a place who has the best wings in town. Maybe they’re the best because I’m delirious from the hunger of a 45 min wait! Servers? Pretty sure I could crab walk around Wal-Mart faster. But nevertheless I keep coming back for those freaking wings!
    Solid point, thanks for the read!

  8. Mitch, what you said is true: “you can (literally) let everything else fall by the wayside when you have something unique (a non-commodity) that people want (and don’t care what else they have to go through)” Case in point is a Denver-area bakery, Child’s Pastry Shop. Over the years, Child’s has forgotten orders, kept me waiting for 30 minutes, appeared indifferent toward mistakes, etc. At one time, I vowed never to return. For the next 12 mos. or so, I tried a half dozen others for birthdays and celebrations – always looking for one that was comparable to Child’s so I could switch for good. But, alas, I was unable to find a product that was as good as Child’s so, reluctantly, I returned. (My reluctance was tied solely to customer service. I was confident in the product quality.) While its service is still only “fine,” there have been no egregious mistakes since my return and the cakes are so darn good… Even so, there’s another lesson here: A business with subpar service will never optimize its success. There will always be those customers who will shop around, as I did, looking for an alternative supplier. And, since everyones’ tastes are different, some may find a suitable alternative (or just be less forgiving) and never return. And some may share their service horror stories with others, as I did. This may deter potential customers from ever trying the product/service to begin with. The key, if the objective of the business is to optimize revenue, growth, and (ultimately) profits, is to provide both exceptional product and service quality.

  9. I tend to agree with Lauren. Is this terrible service just part of the “brand” (intended or not)? Is it possible they are not letting anything “fall by the wayside”? Sometimes, the “abuse” makes the customers want it all that much more. Consider this; so they get crappy reviews for service on yelp but most end with “the food is fantastic”…… some people don’t care about service (or at least will put it aside) for the better quality (and perhaps the cliquey feel). In the minds of some, could this not be a positive review? Although and extreme example, I think I shows that this never ending marketing chase to make everyone happy and adress any negativity is not necessarily a good thing. One person’s spam is likely another’s steak……

  10. If poor customer service is a deliberate brand attribute, proceed with caution. Dick’s Last Resort may get away with throwing straws at your table or telling you to get your own ketchup but for the great majority of establishments, poor service is an unintended consequence of focusing on the wrong priorities (e.g., duties/tasks associated with job role, protocol, policies, efficiency, etc.).
    I agree that different customers define customer service differently. Some patrons enjoy the friendly banter with a supermarket cashier while others just want to pay for their groceries and go.
    That said, making another person feel valued and appreciated by expressing genuine interest or offering a sincere and specific compliment will never go out of style.

  11. The most important thing is and always will be the product. It’s ok that the owner of this place only knows how to prepare great food and not how to treat customers. After all, we go to restaurants to eat. But there’s no question that business would improve if the service was faster and friendlier. I guess you can’t have everything. This reminds me of an old expression we use with clients (about our work): It can be fast, it can be cheap, it can be great – pick any 2.

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