One recent Sunday, my wife and I went out for breakfast at a chain restaurant that specializes in pancakes. Tammy, the young woman at the front counter, seemed to be doing everything – seating guests, cashing out checks, refilling coffee cups and clearing tables. It was obvious that more than one server had not shown up for the shift.


Right after we were seated the “rush” arrived – first a party of five, then a party of three, then a party of six, and so on. As we watched, the waiting room filled to capacity, while everyone noticed that most of the tables remained empty. My wife and I began to consider how we might have handled this situation: First, apologize to everyone waiting and explain that two servers were AWOL. Second, seat everyone, even if it means that there might be a delay in service. Third, offer everyone a beverage. Why? Because it takes the edge off the wait.

Now you might be thinking, “Wait a minute, that’s going to cost money.” Yes, it is. But which is the better option? 1) Leave everyone in the waiting area and watch a good portion of them walk out the door or 2) Seat them and spend a few bucks on coffee and juice? Sure, it will impact a bit of your bottom line. But that’s better than no bottom line because everyone left for a competitor.

But what about Tammy? She is obviously a hardworking soul. If not, she wouldn’t have hustled like she did. Now, it may have occurred to her to do exactly what I just described. But even if it did, chances there was a rule forbidding it. We’ll never know. But once again, this situation made me think about how little most front-line employees are encouraged to use their smarts and do what’s best for the customer, even if it costs a few bucks. As someone has said, it takes a long time to build customer loyalty, but only a minute to lose it.

So, what are you doing to empower those on your frontline to use their smarts when situations like this one arise? You may be thinking, “My people don’t have that much common sense.” If you are, I would encourage you to rethink that assumption. Given the opportunity and compelled to act, most people will rise to the occasion. They’ll do it even more when you celebrate these moments rather than complaining about the free coffee they gave away.

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