In today’s tough economy, every store is trying to find ways to increase its guest count.  Sometimes, the smallest of gestures or actions makes a customer walk away.  What is worse is there are times we set an expectation to the customer and then disappoint the customer.  A disappointed customer of course is very unlikely to return.

Think about the store hours that are posted outside any store.  In today’s world customers can access store location and store hours from the web or their smart phones before making plans to visit the store.  How much of a customer base could be saved by simply swapping out a couple numbers on the front door of the store and on the website? I don’t suggest increasing labor costs by extending store hours. All I suggest is setting the right expectations to help brands retain more customers. The ZenMango Leaky Bucket study has consistently reported that an average of 20% of customers who leave a brand and don’t come back do so because of service.  When a store advertises a closing time then regularly cuts off customer transactions 15 minutes, even an hour prior to that time it disrupts the guest experience and frustrates the customer into choosing another brand. The store is effectively pushing its customers to try its competitors by closing early.

Let me put things in perspective with a series of events I recently went through at the DFW airport.

MY SEARCH FOR FOOD: At the end of my three day business trip to Dallas, the anxious-to-be-home, the road warrior in me got to the airport at 5:30 PM although my flight didn’t leave until 7:26. I headed straight for the airline lounge until the announcement came that the lounge would close at 7:00 and last drink orders at the bar would be served at 6:45.  It was nearly 6:30 and I was sure they wouldn’t feed me on the plane so I headed out to search for a grilled chicken salad before my flight.
Right in front of the lounge was a Taco Bell, but that evening I was on the hunt for something slightly more gourmet. I walked past the Taco Bell and came to a Mexican restaurant with a Grilled Chicken and Mango Salad on the menu. Perfect. I found an employee near a computer and before I could finish my request she told me they were closed.  Hmm, the sign in front said they close at 7:00 PM and my phone said it was currently 6:35 PM. I tried to reason with the person but to no avail.

My reaction: You baited me, you teased me, and then you turned me away.

MY SEARCH FOR FOOD (CONTD.): I quickly left the restaurant so I could find food somewhere else to eat before my flight left. I found a barbeque restaurant and this time I asked the right question.  “Are you open?”  

The lady behind the counter smiled and said, “Yes we are.”  I looked at the menu, spotted a chicken salad, and placed my order.
As I reached back for my wallet she interrupted me and said, “Sorry, we don’t have salads now. You can only get what we have here in the display.” I looked in dismay at the display. After some conversation with the employee I discovered that the restaurant stopped making food at 6:00 PM, an hour before closing.  In the last hour they try to sell out everything they have made.

My reaction:  Is there some unwritten rule I missed?  Am I doing something wrong?

MY SEARCH FOR FOOD (CONTD.): In sheer frustration I walked to my gate. It was nearly 7:00 PM, there was no chance for any food in my life that day.  As I passed Taco Bell, I decided to go and give it a try. The lady behind the counter was full of energy when I hesitantly asked if I could have a chicken salad, she smiled and nodded.  I was amazed as she took me through the ingredients and made sure I only had what I wanted in the salad. Then I asked her if I could add some extra chicken. She said of course, but it would add $1.25 to the order and asked if that was alright.  I gladly paid, and was very happy to receive my Taco Bell salad as I dashed to my gate. Third time’s a charm.

My reactions:  Wow that was unexpected.  I feel bad that I walked passed Taco Bell the first time! Will I get this treatment at every Taco Bell, every time?  Now that would be cool. I know exactly what I will pick up next time I am at the DFW airport.

When a store says that they close at 7:00 PM, shouldn’t that be the last minute they are ready to serve their customers with a complete guest experience? Are they not telling a customer that if you can make it by 7:00 PM, we will make it worth the trip?  Or does that mean that employees will leave at 7:00 PM and need to do all the store closing before that, effectively closing the store 30 to 45 minutes early?  The same way when we send a coupon out to a customer stating that it expires on June 30th, we do not decide randomly to stop taking it a week early so we can report accurately in the half yearly statement.  So why do we do this with store hours?

Closing early may be a great way to manage labor cost and reduce food waste and in a captive environment like an airport.  Hence the restaurant sales at the airport locations most probably will not be impacted by these practices, in fact the store may be more profitable as a result of this. But after this kind of “compromised guest experience” will the customer visit the brand outside the airport ever again? Was it worth losing all of a customer’s future business just to save 30 minutes of labor?  I think not.

MY SEARCH FOR FOOD (CONTD.): The story does not simply end here.  Still to come is my United Airlines flight from Dallas to Denver with my Taco Bell salad. You will be pleasantly surprised to learn how in an industry marked by cutting costs, one team member decided to stand up and provide a wow customer experience.