Just Slice the Cheese! A Lesson in Customer Service

Is it my imagination or has customer service really taken a beating lately? It seems that, on an almost daily basis, we experience less than adequate customer service. Conversely, we could go ages before experiencing extraordinary customer service. Have businesses lost sight of what made them successful in the first place? It seems so. Here’s an example of something that happened to me last week.

On the weekend I was hosting a rather large get together at my house. Approximately 30 people or so were coming at noon on Saturday for a Barbecue. As I usually do, I did the shopping for the event the night before at about 9:30 pm. I go to a large National Grocery Store chain (which shall remain nameless) that is opened until midnight. It’s just easier for me to do my grocery shopping at night. Anyway, I proceed to work my way through the store picking things up here and there. At about 9:50 or so I end up at the deli counter. There was a young lady there wiping the counters. She looked up at me and gave me a head nod to acknowledge me and continued to wipe the counter. I assumed that she would put down her cloth and attend to me (the customer), but I was incorrect in my assumption. (That was my first clue that this was not going to go well) She continued to wipe the counter until she had finished. (STRIKE 1) At that point she came over to me and asked “what can I do for you?” I asked her to slice several cold cuts and for the next few minutes had to listen to her complaining to a coworker about her job, other employees and her private life. At one point even commenting on how she was going to go apply for a job at another business because she didn’t like working there. I’m sorry but I don’t feel that, as a customer, I should have to listen to people complaining about their lives while I am being served. (STRIKE 2)

At that point her coworker went on a break and left her alone. That’s when things got worse. The employee asked me if I needed anything else, to which I replied, “yes, may I please have some Provolone cheese?” She said they were out. I pointed out that there was a huge brick of Provolone cheese in the display case, to which she answered, “but it’s not sliced.” That left me somewhat confused as it did not sound to me as though this was an insurmountable obstacle (silly me). I very naively asked, “can’t you just slice some?” Well you’d think I just asked her to make me cheese from scratch. Her response was unforgivable from a customer service standpoint. She told me that she would not slice more cheese as she had already cleaned the cheese slicer and she was off at 10 pm and didn’t want to have to reclean the machine. Even more confused, (knowing that the store closed at midnight and it was not yet even 10 pm) I asked if the deli counter closed early. She informed me that it did not. Which led me to my next silly question, “if the deli counter is opened for another 2 hours, why can’t I get my cheese? She repeated that she was off at 10 pm and stated outright that she was not going to slice the cheese. (STRIKE 3, YOUR OUT!)

I am not one that normally complains to the manager, when unsatisfied with service, I simply just don’t return. I protest by withdrawing my business (as I believe a lot of people do). But in this case I had a party to get ready for in the morning and didn’t have time to go shopping for cheese somewhere else the next day. So I really wanted that cheese! I asked to speak to a manager. I explained the situation to the manager and to make a long story short, I got my cheese. Too little…to late. The damage had already been done. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think that buying cheese should be that much of an ordeal. This store and other businesses like it need to wise up.

Now you could argue that I just got a bad employee and that it wasn’t the organizations fault, but I strongly disagree. In this instance it is painfully obvious that the organization had dropped the ball and needs to look at their systems and procedures. Somewhere along the line, this employee was under the impression that it was OK to refuse a customer service in order to make her life a little easier. She was so sure of that fact that even though she new that the manager was being called, she was still adamant that she didn’t have to slice the cheese.

In my opinion, this organization failed on many levels. It obviously failed to instill a culture of customer service. It failed to communicate any sort of expectation of superior service to this particular employee and it absolutely failed in its employee selection process. More importantly, I would wager that somewhere in their policies and procedures manual, there is a procedure that says, “pre-slice and package sufficient amount of cheese to last until the end of the night. clean machine by 10 pm.” I would also venture to guess that it does not state what to do if they sell out of the pre-packaged cheese and then get a request for more cheese. Again to me it’s a no brainer…you slice more cheese and then clean the machine again. The overriding policy should always be, “do whatever is necessary to please the customer.” It wasn’t that apparent to this particular employee and as a result, I will take my grocery shopping needs elsewhere.

Let’s work this out in terms of what it is going to cost the business. I spend on average about a thousand dollars a month in groceries (probably more, but I want to be conservative), times 12 months a year, times 20 years of shopping (my lifetime value to the store)…this store just lost $240,000 in revenue because an employee didn’t want to take a few minutes to clean a machine. Not to mention the hit it’s going to take in bad word of mouth and negative PR when I retell my less than stellar customer service story to anyone who will listen.

You organizations out there need to wise up…remember why your in business…to build profits through superior guest service. In this day and age the only competitive advantage you have over your competitors is the extent to which you can create Raving Fans out of your customers. Select the right employees, ones with a customer service mindset, a good attitude (you can train for skill, you can’t train for attitude) and common sense. Outline your expectations clearly (do whatever is necessary to please the customer). Give your employees the proper training and tools to do their jobs and design your systems, policies and procedures in a way that makes the customer the priority. Oh yeah…you managers out there…walk the floor. Make sure that your people are fulfilling your promise of superior customer service, evaluate them, give them regular feedback, deal with poor performers and consistently instill a customer service culture.


In case you haven’t already guessed it…this was not about the cheese, it was about the principle. As an organizational consultant, my message to my clients is simple…if you want to achieve lasting success, your main focus and the central theme of all your employee and organizational policies and procedures must be to, “Exceed customer expectations and create Raving Fans.” Unfortunately it seems, the opposite is true in most organizations. At the very least your employees should know to, “JUST SLICE THE