This past Saturday morning I took my 16 year-old son Noah to a restaurant, Max’s Deli, in Highland Park, IL  I had told Noah about the breakfast burritos at Max’s, and he was excited to order one.  However, I didn’t see the breakfast burrito on the menu.

“Don’t you have breakfast burritos?” I asked the waitress when she arrived at our table.

“Only Monday through Friday.”

“Do you think they could make one on a Saturday?” I asked.

“I’ll ask.” she replied.

“What’s in the breakfast burrito?” asked Noah. “There are certain things I don’t like.”

“I don’t know what’s in it.” she said, somewhat curtly. “It’s just what they put in the breakfast burrito.”

“Can you ask what’s in it, and then I’ll tell you what I want in my burrito?” Noah continued.

Now, here’s the kicker:  The waitress replied: “You can’t change it. It’s already prepared.”

What?  They haven’t served a breakfast burrito since yesterday, and “it’s already prepared?”

The only thing that was “already prepared” was the waitress’s pre-fab, scripted, impersonal, customer-insensitive response.  I am a big enemy of scripting in service situations; when service employees are taught to spout policies and pre-written statements they are liable to come up with insipid gems like this one.

Here’s what happened next.  The waitress relented, and Noah ordered what he wanted, which amounted to a tortilla with scrambled eggs and onions in it.  In the end, her rotten, transactional, canned, scripted response was totally unnecessary.

What causes companies, and their employees, to think that customers are so dumb that it’s possible to tell them really stupid things?  What causes companies, and their employees, to forget the most basic elements of human communication and human relationships when they interact with customers?


  • Amanda Cullen
    May 27, 2009 - 09:16 am

    I think it’s the auto-pilot that causes companies to tell their customers really dumb things. When you give someone a script (We don’t sell burritos on Saturday), they don’t have to think about what they’re saying. So they don’t.

    The solution is to break free of the auto-pilot and the monologue and to actually engage customers. Some may claim this would take too long and Max’s Deli is a busy place. But think how much shorter Steve and Noah’s ordering process could have been if the waitress thought, on the fly, “We’ve got the ingredients for that in the back. We can make it.” Her response to Noah’s order could have been, “Sure, Hon,” instead of the long conversation detailed in the post.

  • Dan Gunter
    May 27, 2009 - 09:29 am

    This is what happens when the idea of “customer service” is shoved aside and replaced with a limited set of choices — a “take it or leave it” menu, of sorts. Companies and their employees forget that you are not in business to serve a product (in this case, a breakfast burrito)… you are there to serve customers. Somewhere in the structure of the business, someone decided “We know what people want (a specific product) and we can make money selling it.” They forget that the service is what will sustain their profits and business.

    I would bet you that if someone with the capital to ride out the initial splitting of business between two establishments opened a restaurant right next door to the one you went to and offered essentially the same menu but put a sign on the door saying “The menu might LOOK the same, but tell us how YOU want YOUR food prepared” and offered friendly, flexible customer service, there wouldn’t be two restaurants next door to one another for very long.

    In fact, a national fast food chain rose greatly in its market share many years ago by pointing out a simple yet powerful tactic that worked well. I don’t think I have to mention the name, but their slogan (which they actually proved to be true) was “Have it your way.”

    Four powerful words. A way of doing business that people are attracted to and will come back to as long as the quality of the product/service is consistently good. A way of doing things that isn’t possible with stringent, canned responses.

    “Sausage, eggs, cheese, onions, and easy on the peppers in my breakfast burrito, please.”

  • Andy Thorp
    May 27, 2009 - 16:16 pm

    It’s the classic dilemma for management – how do I get the staff to serve people better, if they don’t want to? The answer is you can’t. Yes you can force them to trot out some automated response, but they’re not thinking, there’s no desire to really serve – they’re just going through the motions. Is it more fun to serve people really well? Most certainly, better compliments, better tips, better feeling inside. Is it more interesting to engage with customers, to actually have a chat? Definitely. Could staff be persuaded of this? Could they be turned around so they actually WANT to serve better? Sure they can, but it’s up to management to sell the idea to THEM.

    An associate of mine who used to run a chain a restaurants was dining out recently with friends. The waitress came over after they’d finished their mains, asked if they’d enjoyed them and enquired whether they’d like dessert. Cheeks puffed out, hands placed on stomachs…no thanks, we’re full! “Well you know what,” said the waitress, “people have got two stomachs, one for savoury and one for sweet. Now I’m betting when you see this lemon meringue, nice and light and tastes AMAZING you’ll move onto stomach no.2.” All the diners laughed at this, she left them to have a think and 3 of the 6 ordered dessert!

    This kind of thing is fun for the staff too, but managers need to stimulate an interest in experimentation, engagement and perhaps some competition between the staff.

    • Dan Gunter
      May 27, 2009 - 19:47 pm

      Andy, great story. And great points. The trick is that it’s almost impossible to lead people to act this way. Instead, you try to foster an environment where it just comes out naturally. Hire lots of “sunshine,” along with playfulness and creativity, then give people room to let it out, followed by actually rewarding it. It’s “in there” for most people, but it has been greatly suppressed. You can’t “buy it” out of them. The rewards have to be as much intrinsic as they are extrinsic. It’s doable, but not with traditional management thinking and techniques. It has to start with inherently playful and creative leadership. Usually someone with LESS “formal management training” is a heck of a lot better at it than someone with more.

    • Dan Gunter
      May 27, 2009 - 19:51 pm

      For some reason, your story reminds me of Peter Lynch (the famed manager of the high growth Magellan mutual fund) describing in his book “Beating the Street” how he’d go with his kids to a mall and just observe them. Wherever they liked to go more often than not turned out to be a good investment route for the mutual fund dollars.

      Maybe we all need to quit leaning so much on expensive marketing analysis and reports and start asking that one simple question: “Are we fun to do business with?”

  • Mark Banks-Golub
    May 27, 2009 - 18:48 pm

    The sad thing is, Max & Benny’s used to be just the kind of place you are writing of. The wait staff would joke around with customers, special reqeusts were the norm, and you left not just happy with your meal, but happy with the experience.

    I don’t know how to correct the problem, but I don’t eat at Max & Benny’s any more.

    • Dan Gunter
      May 27, 2009 - 19:25 pm


      If they don’t catch on and turn it around on their own, the last half of your last sentence above IS the way the problem gets resolved. Not the ideal way, but it’s definitely A way of dealing with. And they end up out of business eventually.

  • Steve Yastrow
    May 28, 2009 - 06:37 am

    Thanks for all the great comments. Wonderful thoughts.

    Mark, BTW, this was Max’s in Highland Park, not Max & Benny’s in Northbrook. They are always mixed up … not sure if you also had problems with M&B’s!

    I find that the best ways to deal with these types of employee issues are:

    – Let them in on the “big picture,” i.e., how do we want to be perceived by our customers, and what are we trying to accomplish?

    – Teach them the basic concepts of relationship-building encounters. (See either chapter 2 of We or the free ebook, Encounters, on I’ve had lots of success teaching front line employees that your job isn’t just to serve the food, or whatever, and, in fact, your job is more than customer service. It’s to ensure that the customer walks out of here feeling a stronger connection with our business.

  • Jay Riley
    May 28, 2009 - 22:05 pm

    “Spot on!”, as those zany Brits say.

    I think in many service businesses – and definitely in the restaurant biz – once the company knows the customer is part-way through a sentence that is going to be a question wherein the customer is asking the company for something, the answer “Yes!” should start forming on their lips, even before they know the end of the question.

    We three families (11 people total) walked into a ski-town restaurant, and asked if we could be seated together, without prior notice or reservation. We asked politely, because that’s how our mothers raised us. The restaurant was busy, but not packed. The hostess said she could not seat us together. I asked why we couldn’t join those two adjacent tables over there, and she courteously explained that the tables were on opposite sides of a Really Important Waitress Zone Invisible Demarcation Line. While I was engaging with waitress in some still-polite verbal head-scratching, another chickie came along, found out what was happening, and said “Sure, we can put those tables together.” Right answer.

  • Dan Gunter
    May 29, 2009 - 12:17 pm


    I love watching Ken Blanchard compare “quacking” ducks and eagles. At the 1999 “Worldwide Lessons in Leadership” satellite broadcast, he told a similar story about calling the front desk of a hotel trying to get extra chairs brought into the room for a meeting. They said “We can’t… quack, quack… we can only get you two… quack, quack… because of “fire laws.. quack, quack.” He then asked them “Well what about a COUCH? I’ll trade you a couple of chairs for a couch?” “We can’t… quack, quack.” Finally, he ran across a janitor in the hallway and told him his dilemma, to which the janitor replied “Aren’t they STUPID here? Sure, I’ll get your four chairs — even if they fire me. I hate it here anyway.”

    If the culture of your establishment does not allow for and indeed encourage excellent customer service, you can bet that the people on your team that would have been customer service stars will become “shooting stars”… shooting right on out the door to find a better place to work. Customers in tow.

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