The Hot Dog Stand – Customer Service?

At the game I went to the concession stand for some snacks and drinks, to be greeted by a long, slow-moving line. While the second quarter evaporated and the line inched forward, I looked at the hot dog stand operations to see why there was such a delay.

Here’s some highlights:

  • 8 enthusiastic people – 5 at the counter and 3 doing prep in the back

  • the counter folks reminded me of a demolition derby, bumping each other and constantly crossing paths

  • the preparation folks were paying no attention – standing and talking

  • supplies (napkins, plasticware, cardboard trays) were on the right end of the counter but condiments were on the left end

  • the menu and prices were on a banner on the back wall of the stand

  • finally, the line was amorphous and confused, people lined up on a server but some also thought it was next available server

If a transaction takes an average of 4 minutes from order to payment per customer per server, a back-of-the-envelope calculation of service capacity is about 75 customers per hour. A person joining the end of this line at its peak can expect about an hour before heading back to the seat, partially due to the absence of training and flow.

From this experience, I saw several general guidelines for improving customer service, based on the pinch points and frustrations of the patrons at the hot dog stand. Consider these 5 items (the examples tie back to my quest of food and beverages):

  • inform the customer what you expect from them – in our example, how to navigate the line was unclear and the menu and prices were not visible until at the counter

  • design flow for efficiency – the servers bounced around to fulfill orders and customers had to cross the line and go to two locations for supplies and condiments

  • train staff on role and assignments – servers were swamped while preparers ignored the chaos while chatting – alternative roles for all staff are required for peak demand periods

  • manage customer perceptions – customers get angry while waiting when they see staff standing around – regardless of the reason

  • create as positive an experience as possible while addressing the customers’ needs smile, be upbeat when serving the customer and remain focused on addressing the customers’ need, NOT on why it can’t be done.

It is not unusual to be too close to this issue to see the gaps and over-servicing areas clearly in your customer service operation – and an outside advisor will review and assess how things are actually done, not influenced by how insiders think things are being done.

Customers want to be heard and receive accurate, timely answers to their questions or concerns. Preferences aside, there are several channels to reach the customer – web site information, interactive topic search, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), employee blogging, telephone tree with simple questions answered by automated systems with an opt out for a real person who can do more than simply read the same web site screen to the caller. For the complex problems, one-on-one service by phone, in person, or by video call gets satisfying results.

The best approach to customer service is to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and proceed the way YOU would like to be served.

Don’t come to the game hungry is NOT a solution to the hot dog stand problem, even though you may see the second quarter.

Your thoughts?

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David Dejewski

Awesome post, Jack.

Back when I was a CIO, I took my IT staff out to a restaurant one time to demonstrate good customer service. This place served exactly one meal. No menus. No this or that. Just whatever the staff wrote on the board for that day. This place was an extreme example of the power of customer service.

The food was good, but they did one thing extremely well: customer service. Eating there was an experience. The food was a benefit. It was packed for every meal. Smiles all around.

Elizabeth Fischer Laurie

This is some ways reminds me of when I used to work in a retail pharmacy that was extremely busy during the post-work hours each weekday.

Unlike the hot dog stand, the pharmacy was designed to keep providing a great customer experience, even during peak times. Through reasonable adjustments in staff, work flow, even the music in the store, most customers were kept happy and those who weren’t could at least see we were trying our best to get their prescriptions filled in a timely fashion. Regardless of these adjustments, we often had to tell people that coming back during non-peak hours would mean they waited less and it was ultimately their choice whether to wait or come back later. I think we did an excellent job of making this clear and setting customer expectations appropriately, which in turn made the experience better for all.

I think the moral of the story is two-fold. First, each business has a capacity and adjustments can only get you so far in providing ideal service at all times – i.e., you will fail sometimes. Second, by setting expectations and clearly communicating to your customers you provide them a choice about the experience forcing them to accept some responsibility for their feelings about the situation. Both are extremely important in providing the best experience possible regardless of the situation.

Jack Gates

David: Great story – thanks for continuing the conversation by sharing your experience – superior service by thinking from the customer’s viewpoint.

Jack Gates

Elizabeth: Keeping the customer informed and permitting them to make a choice does not eliminate the delay, but it does empower the customer to make the choice. Thank you for the story and comment.