This week, I had the opportunity to visit a popular local restaurant as part of a school fundraiser with my husband and kids. And while that by itself provides a good example of business leaders giving back to their communities, it quickly became clear that the experience also was serving up lessons in customer service, expectation and empathy

When we arrived, we immediately saw that there was a line extending out the door and well down the sidewalk. I tried to present it to my kids as a sign of the fundraiser's success, but as we stood in line in 40-degree, windy, lightly-drizzle-on-you Minnesota weather for a good hour, I realized that the event was far from what the school or restaurant wanted.

Poor planning, poor space and lost customers.

The problem was twofold. First, once we actually got closer to the door, we could see that the restaurant simply wasn't properly staffed for the event. Secondly, the physical layout of the store meant that the customers couldn't wrap the line around inside the store easily. 

So parents sent kids to wait in their cars, texting each other as ordering opportunity approached. My son started pestering my husband for his phone so he could have games and have something to do. My daughter read a book she had with her. And because the school had indicated that the fundraiser flow usually tapered off toward the second half of the evening, it only got worse as more people started showing up.

So it didn't take long for the inevitable to happen. People started bailing. And while most stayed, the customer behind us summed it up pretty aptly to my husband:

"If you can't handle the fundraiser traffic, then don't host the fundraiser. You're losing business and looking bad. And I'd leave too, but now I'm invested."

I can't say he was wrong.

Management should have tried to schedule more workers and find a way to get people through the line. They should have said mea culpa and compensated people for the extended wait, even if it was just offering some coupons for discounts on a future visit. They should have told people it was okay to bend the line around the tables and get people in from the cold.

The missing ingredient of customer-side empathy.

But as I looked to the staff, it was obvious that they were flustered and miserable, understandably so. And worst of all, I knew they didn't even have the hope of a break in the traffic.

And so as people bailed and the staff tried to push harder, it occurred to me that, while the customer might always be right, service (or any other workers) are only human. They're going to fail to plan. They're going to miss opportunities. It happens. And this was one experience, one night out of the thousands of days where they did just fine.

So I question our intolerance of imperfection and our reaction to what's just a plain, albeit inconvenient, reality of life. Perhaps we do move far too quickly, as they say, to throw the baby out with the bath water. 

Customers deserve excellent service. And so as leaders, we absolutely should try hard, push for excellence and make things right after flubs. Yet, we must be careful that we don't transfer our customer-side expectation for flawlessness to our teams or partners--we should never be in such a hurry or so wrapped in a lack of empathy that we can't cut them a little slack.

The customer-business relationship is not meant to be two-way only when things go well, and the employee-employer relationship is similar. And our attitude when people fail us influences their recovery. It is our obligation no matter which side of the equation we're on to consciously change our view of the world so that we can extract good even in poor circumstances, so that we then can pay forward whatever positives we notice. And while we can hold others to high expectations, we can offer some understanding, clarity, patience and encouragement as we do it.

Anything less is a rotten order to swallow.

Published on: Oct 21, 2019
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