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All I really needed to know about customer service I learned in a deli

By: Hank Lerner, Esq. on in

Photo credit: stu_spivack
Photo credit: stu_spivack

In a “prior life” I was the co-owner/operator of a deli and catering business. One of the lessons I still carry with me is that good customer service is giving customers what they ask for, while great customer service is giving the customer what they need.

In a recent Realtors Should be More Like Travel Agents,” Daniel Rothamel makes that same point by pointing to a successful travel agent: “…she tries not just satisfy the needs that [clients] express, but she uses her expertise and experience to plan for the needs and desires that go unmentioned.”

In our restaurant we had a lot of regular customers.  We heard about their wants every day, and were pretty good at figuring out many of their unspoken needs. We spent countless hours adjusting various metrics (food cost, sale price, portion size, speed of service, etc.) to meet these needs and wants, and all evidence suggested we were doing a pretty darn good job.

After selling the business I continued to live and work within a few blocks of the location, so I ran into many former customers. Menu prices rose, food quality and service declined, but all anyone wanted to talk about was how they missed our personalities – the jokes and smart remarks, our ability to remember names and regular orders, and that sort of thing.

In fact, when my new boss introduced me to his wife at a work event, he said his experience as a customer convinced him to give me a first interview because “even though I didn’t eat there very often, Hank always knew my name and remembered that I liked an extra cup of ice with my bottle of Crystal Light.”

What the *#!$%? Busted my butt 12 hours a day, and all he remembers is “Hi Mark, here’s some ice?”

In retrospect, though, that was a real lightbulb moment for me. The focus on price and quality was certainly important (customers wouldn’t have been there if we’d served lousy, expensive food) but what they REALLY needed had nothing to do with food. What they needed was as basic as a big helping of friendship and respect along with that side order of potato salad.

As the market gets more challenging there are lots of calls for real estate brokers and agents to “get back to basics.” There’s survey after survey about “what consumers want,” with commentary and consultants out the wazoo, but much of it is about the metrics. (One good exception, although I’m sure there are others.)

When former clients recommend you, do you think they say things like:

“You can’t go wrong with his approach to listing syndication.” 
“I couldn’t get over how quickly she responded to our late-night texts.”
“I wasn’t going to go back to him, but his well-crafted drip marketing campaign changed my mind.”


But I’ll bet that a big part of what a truly satisfied customer remembers – what they feel in their gut – is something closer to “I felt comfortable with him the moment we started talking,” or “every time we spoke it felt like we were her only clients.” You certainly can’t ignore the metrics, but when the dust settles it’s not the statistics that stick in their mind — it’s the friendship and respect that they remember…and that they’ll tell others about when given a chance.

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