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  • Writer's pictureChris Smith

One Napkin

I walked into a restaurant recently to order a sandwich on my way to coach a youth soccer game. It was a fairly common chain restaurant, known at least to people who have worked there - like yours truly - for the influence of franchise owners.

Influence can be both good and bad. I imagine the executives at the brand would hope for a bias toward consistency across the many thousands of franchise locations. Some locations though seem to prefer practices that make sense for them.

I asked for ‘one napkin.’ I had just paid nearly $12 dollars for a sandwich meal with chips and drink, and I asked for ‘one napkin.’ I’ve eaten these sandwiches before and while they are not inherently messy, perhaps I can be, so I asked for ‘one napkin.’ The cashier, whom I

took for somebody in a leadership role due the disparity in his age and gender from the others working there, as well as the fact that he seemed to be telling everybody else what to do, glared back at me with disdain as he delivered the message “in the bag”, and yet I still I asked for ‘one napkin.’ “Here…” he finally said as he stripped away ‘one napkin’ from a large industrial stack of flimsy paper napkins.

While I carried off my napkin with my sack of sandwich, what I took away was an emotional experience. Sometimes we say we can’t help how we feel, but we can examine it. I reviewed my biases and thought, well perhaps I am ignorant to the costs involved in offering extra napkins. My research involved two steps. The first happened almost immediately: anecdotal research suggests that most restaurants of comparable class simply provide napkin dispensers so that customers can help themselves. The second took slightly more time: I brought up Amazon and searched for industrial napkins. I found the very best [and by “best” I mean high volume, fast food restaurant quality, single use] from usual commercial suspects like Dixie and Tork]. But even these didn’t have price points at the levels I expected. It took a hot second, but what I think I figured out is the price / unit on Amazon doesn’t seem to go lower than $0.01 / unit. Given that .01 is the lowest unit of currency, perhaps it doesn’t make sense to calculate something lower, and so everything below that is simply rounded.

While I’m sure there’s a great Office Space punch-line here, what I wondered after my research was why my cashier / leader would risk even one $12 sandwich sale for ‘one napkin’ valued at a presumably rounded up $0.01. At the end of this unplanned social experiment, what I really wondered about was whether my cashier was wondering about this at all.

Being healthy sometimes means you have to make investments. This might mean a salesperson takes a less aggressive approach to a sale in order to build a relationship. It might mean providing services to a customer who needs them at a rate that might not make sense to you, but meets their need. It might also mean providing service with a smile when a customer asks for ‘one napkin.’ Consider these to be investments in the experiences related to the delivery of your business.

Many of us are aware that when nearly all of the major, commercial US air carriers instantiated baggage fees in the months after 9/11/01 to supplement falling revenues, Southwest Airlines did not. Wall St. suggested that SWA made a big mistake while SWA

executives suggested the bigger mistake would have been to detour from delivering on their purpose on helping their customers to be more free to move about the country. That is putting your money where your mouth is, aka investing in Health, in a big, big way. And the payoff in terms of customer commitment to SWA has been just as big.

While all teams and organizations might not have the resources to disqualify revenues streams like SWA did, many still generate good feels with things like upgrades, free shipping, or complimentary desserts while others damage relationships with mean mugs and sass over an extra napkin. This shouldn’t be an assessment of generosity or kindness, but rather an understanding about your options and how and when they might come into play.

Healthy leaders need to understand the potential customer interactions that may arise, and be fluent in their ability to navigate those interactions.

Here are four things to consider in terms of readiness for the provision of a customer experience….

  • Start with purpose. Be clear about the overwhelming priority in your business also position those who might deliver an experience to adhere to that purpose.

  • Have ongoing discussions. Create a forum where scenarios can be reviewed and discussed, and expectations set and revised about sensible interactions.

  • Be kind. Provide for a “kindness lens” where employees and team members feel empowered to choose the “kinder” option when faced with a tough decision.

  • Be transparent. While leaders don’t need to share everything related to finances, share enough to help employees and team members to understand what flexibility they have.

Leaders investing the time and energy in the experience that teams provide to customers cannot help but be a good thing. So the next time somebody who orders a $12 sandwich meal needs an extra $0.01 napkin, smile and give him two!

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