A couple years ago, I got the idea that I’d self-syndicate a newspaper column. I’d submit a 600-or-so-word general interest column article weekly to a list of newspapers in the US, and, hopefully, get enough bites to sustain me as a writer while I worked on my fiction. For a lot of different reasons, the idea didn’t work, and after writing and submitting fewer than ten articles to my list, I gave up on it.
I recently re-read these pieces and I realized that, while the column might not have caught hold, the writing itself was good, and so I’m assembling these pieces into a short e-book, which I intend to publish in early October in both Kindle and PDF editions.
Here is a sample column from that forthcoming book, inspired by a customer service nightmare that I witnessed at Helena’s Cafe and Creperie in my hometown of Carlisle, PA, in summer 2013.
Keep an eye on my Facebook page for more information about the e-book! Enjoy!
“What’s your coffee like?”
The woman’s loaded question, addressed to the counterperson at the bakery/cafe where I was writing, not only made me appreciate my own cup of coffee– rich, strong but not overwhelming, and (best part for a writer planted at a table doing his work) abundant free refills– but it also made me pay attention.
Maybe this was because she was loud, but maybe it was also because I’d just read a blog post entitled something like “Maybe You’re Getting Bad Customer Service Because You’re A Bad Customer.”
In any case, I was now rudely not minding my own business. Of course, given her voice, it was tough for anyone in the little shop to not eavesdrop.
But I also needed a story idea, so…
I couldn’t see the counterperson, but she sounded wary, like she’d never really been asked to describe their coffee before. She took a breath. “Well, it’s, uhhh–”
“–I mean, is it strong or weak, or kind of in between? Is it like Starbucks?”
The counterperson was now being asked either to describe the bakery’s coffee as one of two potentially negative adjectives, or to describe it in comparison to a competitor’s.
Was this woman a mystery shopper?
I should point out that while this bakery has good coffee, it’s a bakery, not a coffeeshop. There aren’t multiple carafes of artisan roasts. There’s regular and decaf. Period. Both of them are bold but not weak.
But for some reason, the counterperson couldn’t find the words she wanted.
“It’s, you know… it’s not WEAK, but it’s not… it’s not TOO strong.”
The woman thought. “‘Not too strong.’ Well… is it Starbucks strong or is it, you know, strong strong?”
The counterperson was trying to answer. “It’s not Starbucks strong,” she said.
“So… not Starbucks strong, but HOW strong?”
As my friend Chantal pointed out, there were six words that the counterperson could have uttered which would have ended this exchange immediately:
Would you like to try it?
Simple. Just offer the woman a sample. She’ll then TASTE whether it’s what she wants or likes or expects, and maybe even buy a full cup along with a cinnamon roll or Danish or crepe.
Instead, the questions went on for another two minutes:
“So not Starbucks strong? Would you say it’s more bold or roasty? Is it roasted locally? Who roasts it? Is more like a Starbucks medium or more like an espresso? You make espresso? Is it good? Is it like Starbucks espresso?”
By this point my eyes had rolled so far into the back of my head that they were blocking my eardrums, so I didn’t hear all of her questions. I wasn’t really sure that the counterperson was hearing them, either, until the customer finally asked: “Is there another coffeeshop nearby?”
“Well,” the counterperson said, razor sharp edge on her tone, “there’s a STARBUCKS about a mile away.”
Long, long silence.
“O.K.,” the woman said at last, “I’ll take a cup of coffee, and put a shot of espresso in it. With skim. And one splenda.”
No “please.” Just “I’ll take.”
Meanwhile, a woman in line behind her was browsing the display of macarons (French sandwich cookies, baked on premises), and, when it was her turn, she asked how much they cost.
“Two dollars each,” the counterwoman said, gratified at a simple question.
“I’ll take a dozen,” the woman replied.
She selected two each of six different flavors, which the counterperson boxed up and rang into the register. “Twenty-four dollars,” she said.
At this point, everyone in the shop learned that this second customer was apparently from an alternate reality where twelve times two does NOT equal twenty-four.
“TWENTY FOUR DOLLARS?” she cried out. “FOR A DOZEN COOKIES? THAT’S TERRIBLE! THAT’S TERRIBLE!” Sigh! “Give… give me ONE of each. That’s TERRIBLE!”
Terrible, I thought as I got another free refill of coffee and left a couple dollar bills in the tip jar to cover my freebies.
“Thanks,” the counterperson said, a sigh in her voice.
I smiled at her. “The customer’s always right!”