How to piss off customers by giving them a 25% discount


A little follow up on the power of customer expectations

This is a bit of a follow up to the article on customer service I wrote a while ago. I thought it was worth sharing my experience with a restaurant this past weekend and working through the very strong customer service lesson.

The set up

A few weeks ago my girlfriend and I were headed out to brunch. There is a somewhat new restaurant in our area – locally sourced, thoughtful dishes… – and my girlfriend had not had their brunch yet. It was late in the day so we checked their times online – open ’till 3pm. It was about 1:40 so we bundled up and headed out. We got there 5 before 2pm and saw the sign outside – they close at 2pm. Ok, not a big deal. Too bad the website is not updated, but it happens. Still, we pop our head in just to check if the kitchen was still open. The waitress stammers a little and tells us to hold on. A few moments later, the owner comes out and introduces himself, apologizes profusely, and tells us he wants to make it right.

He says “Call and make a reservation, give your names, and you’ll get half off. Brunch or dinner. And that’s not just you, that’s your whole bill.”

Wow! Awesome! Fans for life! That is some killer customer service, right! For the cost of half a ticket he just bought himself some die-hard supporters.

The dinner

So… time passes and we finally decide to take him up on this. We invite another couple to join this ( we debate the morality of this, but decide since he clearly said “not just for you, but your whole bill” we would bring along our foodie friends) and call for the reservation.

We arrive and I make a point of asking the waiter to thank the owner again for us, that it was very generous and we really appreciate it.

We eat, it’s delicious, we have a grand time – and we all love this place now.

The bill

So what happens…? We are seeing a local play later in the evening so my friend asks for the bill to be brought out with the dessert to ensure we make it. They ask in return if we want separate checks, since the discount is only applied to the two of us. My friend is confused, and walks back to the table and explains what happens.

We’re surprised – genuinely surprised. In hindsight we should have asked the owner to specify, but he was incredibly emphatic about the whole thing. “Just call up and we are going to wine and dine you!” he said.

Now, suddenly, disappointment sets in across the table. I feel like I’ve let my friends down by promising them this great discount – but more than that, by promising them that this was something special. I feel defensive with the staff – do they thing we are greedy and abusing the generosity of the owner? And I feel a little betrayed by the owner. Someone who made us feel so respected and welcomed when we came before, now makes us feel a little like criminals, or at best just like uninvited and unwelcome guests.

Intellectually this doesn’t have the tiniest bit of importance – it is of no real consequence to any of us… at all. Emotionally though, it stings. Customer service is emotional. Buying things is emotional. No way around it.

The short of it

We went from having a lovely dinner, and being huge supporters of this restaurant, to feeling kind of crummy and never wanting to eat there again, all in a matter of moments.

And the kicker! We just got 25% off our meal and we were pissed off! How funny and stupid is that! Due to bad communication, either between the owner and us or the waitstaff and the owner, we went from evangelist to detractors. They just covered a quarter of our bill just to have us be pissed off. Crazy!

It all comes back to the power of expectations. Here is the bit from my previous post on that:

The Power of Expectations

It’s an amazing thing how dramatically our expectations can change our reception of something. To illustrate my point, enjoy this clip from Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Jimmy Kimmel asked parents to give their children terrible Christmas presents early, and of course the children are beyond devastated. By giving a little boy a girl’s shirt, the boy is crushed and furious. Now, had the boy just been given a girl’s shirt on an insignificant day without being told he was getting a special gift, he would have said “no, thank you” and thought little of it. By building the expectation of a special gift way before Christmas, the boy has a tremendous amount of potential energy and excitement ready to be joyfully unleashed. That energy is indifferent, of course, to joy or sorrow; it just wants to get out. So when the present turns out to be terrible, that energy is directed into anger and outbursts. By the simple act of giving a boy a shirt, you can unleash a huge amount of negative energy if you prime him with the certain false assumptions.

Lesson Learned

Be crazy mindful about what your customers expectations are. Handled well, you can turn a negative expectation into a wonderful experience for your customer (and a very valuable experience for you). But handled poorly and you can waste a lot of time and money, even if you’re trying to do the right thing.


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