Some time ago, I was on the receiving end of a massive screw-up at one of my previously favorite restaurants and WiFi hotspots, Panera Bread in Chelmsford, MA. I have not been back.
Ironically, the screw-up itself hasn’t kept me away, because we all screw up sometimes, because we’re all only human. I can’t hold an honest mistake against someone. But how the organization handled the mistake demonstrated that it probably learned nothing from it. So why go back? I might just experience the same sort of foul up again. And then I realized that this is a dysfunction of US society, including the way we educate our kids and the way we run our businesses.
Here’s what happened: I walked into the restaurant, my laptop in one hand, as I frequently do. Waiting in line, I chose a salad from the menu. A very friendly employee then told me she could take my order, which she did. She then asked if I had a MyPanera card, which I did not. But of late, I’d been eating more frequently at the restaurant chain, so I asked if it was a simple process. Indeed, it was. She asked me my name, scanned in a new card, and explained that I could go online to register the card in order to get bonuses and discounts. Kewl! She then gave me my receipt and a pager, which would buzz when my food was ready so that I could get it at the pick-up counter.
I thanked her and found a table to sit at. I opened my laptop and immediately went online to register my new MyPanera card. Then I promptly became distracted by Facebook or something or other. Next thing I knew, 20 minutes had passed, and the pager had not yet gone off. This is not fast food, really, but it rarely takes them even 5 minutes to process an order, much less 20. But it was quite busy at the time, so I thought, maybe they were backed-up. However, I needed to leave in 20 more minutes, to pick up my Firstborn from school, and so this delay was a problem.
I looked at my receipt–and good thing I had kept it–and noticed that neither my name nor pager number appeared in the slot for “Name/Pager #.” Hmm… But they surely have procedures to deal with situations like this, which must happen from time to time.
Apparently not. When the guy preparing the food looked at my receipt, he said, “I remember that order.” Then he added, as he was preparing it again for me, “She didn’t put your name or pager on there.”
I said nothing. Merely stood there with a stupid look on my face, thinking, You gotta be kidding, right?
Why didn’t he try to fix the mistake as soon as he had evidence that there was a problem? When he made the order the first time… What? Did he think I had paid for my food and then skipped out without collecting it? Not likely! But he knew that I probably had a pager, so couldn’t he have found out which pager was unaccounted for and rung it? It’s likely that pager was mine. I know, it’s human nature to want to ignore problems and hope they’ll go away, especially when we’ve caused them. I admit, I’ve been guilty of it from time to time, and it’s so embarrassing that I don’t even want to tell you those stories. But we should always face our own screw-ups; otherwise, how can we possibly hope to make things right?
Okay, so that solution would have required technology, the ability to scan all the pagers and discover which one was missing. Maybe they don’t have that technology, although as an engineer, I think it’s conceptually pretty simple. But he knew that it was an eat-in order (not a take-out order), so it was likely that I was in the restaurant somewhere. He also knew who had taken the order, because her name was on the receipt. Why couldn’t he have asked her to look around the restaurant and place me by sight? Maybe bring my food, along with an apology. Sometimes, even when we’re anxious to make things right, we need to be creative in getting it done.
Speaking of which, why didn’t I get an apology? Because I didn’t ask for one? Not everyone is going to fly off the handle and make demands. But every victim is going to feel slighted. If you’ve screwed up, don’t wait to be asked to apologize. Assume you need to make amends. I admit, I too sometimes have been hesitant to apologize, even when I know that I’ve screwed up. Because it’s hard and embarrassing to apologize. But we should always be quick to apologize, even if no one complains, especially in a professional setting.
Even though he didn’t apologize, he did have presence of mind to deflect the blame to someone else. The friendly and helpful employee who took my order, apparently it was her fault, because she had not correctly registered my name or pager with the order. I truly hope she didn’t get in trouble for the mistake, because I’m not ticked at her. Mistakes happen; they’re inevitable, because we’re human, and we make mistakes. It’s how we deal with those mistakes that matters. Do we learn from them? Do we change the way we think and work in order to try to prevent the same kind of mistake from happening again? Assigning blame is completely counterproductive, unless it’s to take personal responsibility. Again, I admit that I have from time to time deflected blame onto others, because that’s often our gut reaction when we feel like we’ve screwed up. We don’t want to get into trouble. But the victims of our incompetence usually don’t care whose fault it is, as much as they just want it to be fixed.
He could have offered me a freebie as compensation for the screw-up. This is a tried-and-true band-aid to an inconvenienced customer. I’ve just had a bad experience, and now the badness of the experience is going to stick in my memory, regardless of whether I want it to or not. Counteract that bad feeling with a good memory. He could have offered me a refund for the flubbed order. Okay, maybe as a low-level employee he doesn’t have authority to offer refunds. But someone in the store has that authority. Of course, in order to appeal up the chain of command, he would have to admit that a mistake was made. If he’s afraid to do so, that may be an indication that the store owners or managers don’t want to see mistakes. Are they more interested in blaming people or fixing the process? The culture of an organization flows from the top. We always need to be aware of the incentives we give to those around us, and never to discourage them from admitting and addressing the organization’s mistakes.
I took my salad, sat down, ate it. I made it on time to pick up my Firstborn. But somehow, my food tasted just a little more bland than I had originally thought it would.