Summer 2008
How Do You Get to the Heart of Great Customer Service? By Rich Gallagher

Most people are familiar with the expression “laughing like a hyena.” But at Hyena’s Desert Grille—an upscale casual-dining establishment run by several hyenas from a neighborhood pack—things were no laughing matter. Business had been falling off for several months, and they were now running perilously close to their break-even point. And worse, no one really seemed to know why.

It wasn’t always this way. Hyena’s used to be known as the place for carnivores to have a good time over a spit of roast prey and pitchers of draft beer. In its heyday, there were lines of creatures spilling out onto the sidewalk every weekend. But over the past year, the crowds had gotten smaller. There was no new competition and no other obvious reason for the decline. As Jocko, the general manager, put it, “Hey, we are what we are.” But even Jocko knew that something had to be done, and soon.

So, they brought in a consultant—a motivational speaker on customer service. She was perky, bubbly, and armed with boxes of books and tapes. Before long, she gathered the whole restaurant staff together to lecture them about the benefits of having a great attitude.

“The first rule is to always smile, smile, smile!” she exclaimed.

“But we already smile,” sighed Ernie, the assistant manager. “Remember, we’re all hyenas.”

Undaunted, she continued, extolling the virtues of customer passion, creating magical moments, and being a winner. And then she left.

Unfortunately, nothing changed in the days and weeks that followed—so they brought in another consultant. This one, a funny-looking man with a white shirt and thick glasses, had all sorts of measurements, stopwatches, and some strange tool called “customer relationship management.” By the time this consultant left, their wallets were several thousand dollars lighter, and they were now the proud owners of a state-of-the-art computer system that could tell them in micrometric detail how productive each server was, how many pounds of gazelle were on order, and what customers ordered every night.

Still, none of it helped Hyena’s get more customers in the door. So they decided to bring in one more consultant. He didn’t give them a motivational speech. Nor did he measure anything. In fact, he just sat in a corner booth, ordered the Grilled Antelope Caesar Salad, and took notes—for a long time. And then he did something that seemed even stranger: He began wandering from table to table, chatting amiably with the customers—a pit bull and his two sons, a young wolf dining alone, a family of cougars, and even a group of aging female brown bears who wore red hats and were laughing loudly over their piña coladas.

Hours later, as the restaurant was closing up for the evening, the consultant gathered Jocko and his fellow managers around a table in the back. “So, tell me, what were you doing out there on the floor today?” began Jocko.

“I was watching what happened between you and your patrons in the course of a normal work day,” the consultant replied. “Then I went around and talked with your customers—and more important—I listened to them. As a result, I think I have a pretty good picture of what’s going on these days with your restaurant.”

“Interesting. Tell me more,” said Jocko.

“First of all, while I was eating lunch, I observed your team in action. You all basically seem like nice guys and gals overall. But one thing really stuck out. Whenever someone complained about the food, or wanted a better table, or had any other kind of problem, you all seemed a little . . . shall we say . . . aggressive.”

“Of course we’re aggressive—don’t you understand? We’re predators,” said Jocko, with some visible exasperation.”And pack animals” chimed in Ernie. “Surely our customers must understand the whole instinct thing, don’t they?”

“Let me put it this way,” the consultant said. “Are customers complaining about the wait to get in these days?”

“They used to,” said Ernie with a sigh.

“Then I think you’ve just answered your own question. And later, when I was chatting with one of the regulars, she talked about the time that a family of woodchucks came in looking for a place to have lunch.”

“Oh, yes . . .” Jocko said, rolling his eyes.

“You ate them—in front of the customers,” said the consultant.

“Look, you’re a human, right? What would you do if a juicy young chicken landed in your yard?”

“I guess the whole point is that you shouldn’t be putting yourselves first. Even among humans, doing things like eating, drinking, or gossiping in front of customers just doesn’t look classy. And besides,” the consultant sighed, “restaurants normally order food these days.”

“Bottom line,” he continued, “I see something going on that I see in a lot of businesses that were once successful. You start focusing on yourselves and not your customers. You have lots of rules nowadays. You say absolutely no substitutions, and you require the whole party to be here before anyone can be seated. Even though your patrons are mostly predators, you don’t allow hunting on the premises. And above all, when customers have problems, you unknowingly act like they should feel privileged to eat here.”

“So, we started reacting to our success, as opposed to the people who made us successful,” said Jocko thoughtfully.

“Exactly correct,” smiled the consultant. “Fortunately, it’s easily fixed, in my experience. Oh, and one more thing . . .”


“Your wait staff laughs at people when they take their orders.”

“But we always laugh. We’re all hyenas,” replied Ernie.

“Don’t worry; it’s nothing that a little training won’t fix.”

A few weeks later, after some more work with the consultant and a series of focus groups in the predator community, Hyena’s managers had a pretty good handle on why customers were falling away faster than prey on the run. More important, they used what they learned to improve their service. Old rules were revised, a new staff training program was implemented, and even their trademark cackling laughs got replaced by a friendly chuckle. They started reaching out to the community, with events like football night with free appetizers and entrails, and a monthly women’s “Running with the Wolves” luncheon. Above all, Hyena’s was once again a place where carnivores could count on great food and a good time—and soon enough, the crowds started coming back.

One Saturday night, a few months later, Jocko surveyed his crowded restaurant and overheard a group of young jackals say, “Man, Hyena’s is definitely the place to be on a Saturday night.” He couldn’t resist walking over and asking them what they liked about his restaurant, and one of them replied, “This place is cool. You guys always make our pack feel at home.” Just then, he made eye contact with another family of woodchucks making their way across the parking lot. He smiled, waved at them, and returned to the kitchen with that knowing look that comes from experience.

Moral: Listen to Your Customers

Does service quality really matter when it comes to keeping customers, versus “real” things like your restaurant’s food and menu selection or the price of your merchandise? Statistically, yes. Studies have shown that high customer satisfaction levels yield results ranging from greater profitability and lower marketing expenses to higher stock prices.

Moving from fables to the real world, you can often see a direct link between service quality and crowd size at many of the places where you eat. For example, different restaurants in the same chain often have wildly different levels of success depending on how customers are treated. More important, the fortunes of the same restaurant can change dramatically with even subtle changes in how customers perceive the level of service, even when the food is exactly the same. When employees are unmotivated and customers don’t come first, crowds usually get smaller and smaller until these restaurants eventually go out of business. And much like these fictional hyenas, the restaurant owners probably never even understand why.

You can change this dynamic by making a habit of asking customers what they think, and then using this feedback to improve your operations. No matter what profession you are in, input from your customers holds the keys to your success. Listen to what they tell you—and more important, react to it—and you will be at the top of your game in any business.

Discussion Questions

How much input does your organization seek from your customers?

How do you use feedback from customers, and are your people on the front line fully aware of what customers are saying?

Do customer comments—including criticism—lead to real changes in your policies and procedures?

Excerpted from What to Say to a Porcupine: 20 Humorous Tales that get to the Heart of Great Customer Service by Richard S. Gallagher. Copyright © 2008 Richard S. Gallagher. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Rich Gallagher

Rich Gallagher is the author of a new business fable collection What to Say to a Porcupine: 20 Humorous Tales that Get to the Heart of Great Customer Service (AMACOM 2008) and Great Customer Connections (AMACOM 2006). He is a noted expert on communications skills and customer service, with a track record of dramatically turning around the performance of customer contact operations. Visit him online at

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