I was sitting in the Panda Express drive through line when I came up with this idea, it’s definitely something most people have felt but I have never seen it articulated. We all make generalized remarks about the service at various restaurants, and in America we even tip based on it. But I have never seen a set of criteria that could be used to objectively grade any given establishment or business as a whole. And this is a real problem because businesses need to know what their customers actually want.

To start with it helps to define a high level spectrum with which we can rank various common retail businesses based on the quality of service you would expect to receive during a random interaction. At the low end of the spectrum you would find businesses that aren’t working based on your expectation, note that this isn’t some raw qualifier of how friendly a representative is. If I’m buying some comfort food late at night chances are I probably don’t want to be asked by your cashier how my night is going or if I have any weekend plans. On the other hand if it is 6am and I’m buying coffee I might be a little more optimistic and interested in chatting. The quality of service any any given business is in understanding these various contexts and how to interact with your clientele.

I understand that not all businesses are going to have the resources to hire the best customer service representatives. In cases where margins are tighter you should be training your employees to get out of the way and interact as little as possible. In fact you could use vending machines in many cases, or train your employees to act like vending machines if you prefer. Its my feeling that 7-11 understands this situation very deeply, I’ve been their customer nearly my whole life, visiting stores all over the country. Never once have I felt judged by their employees for buying snacks late at night. I can’t say the same about a local alternative convenience store. Plaid Pantry is clearly the low rent option, you never know what kind of freak show is going to be sitting behind the counter and what kind of nonsense they are going to spew.

This post wouldn’t be complete without talking about Starbucks. Say what you will about the fluctuating quality of their coffee, the customer service you get at Starbucks is always just right, and that is no small feat given the social complexities of a coffee shop in the pacific northwest. For many of us, the coffee shop can be a neutral space in between the office and home, somewhere we can work on side projects or meet with new friends. But it is also a reliable place to get a quick hit of caffeine on your way to do something else. As such each person who passes through has their own requirements and expectations about how they should be served. The people just passing through can be handled easy enough, just take their lead, if they want to exchange pleasantries then by all means… I think there is a real opportunity for the treatment of people who try to stay longer. I’ve had my fair share of Starbucks study sessions cut short by stinky or otherwise annoying freeloaders. I’m willing to pay well over market value for a drink assuming I can sit comfortably for at least an hour. And that does mean you are going to need to expel people who are disrupting that comfort.

The obvious example of a business that just doesn’t understand their customer service is Subway. There may have been a hay day for Subway in the 90s, back when the idea of ordering a sandwich exactly how you want hadn’t really been done. At some point their business model seemed to change, probably with the whole $5 footlong marketing campaign. The problem with this pivot was that they lowered their prices but didn’t change the relatively intricate process of ordering a sandwich. Ordering a sandwich in at Subway today has to be one of the most frustrating processes at any restaurant. When I walk into a store I know that I’m going to be asking for each thing two or three times because the person behind the counter isn’t being paid enough to give a damn. Because of the sheer friction of the ordering process I try to avoid Subway and that probably wont change until they either allow me to order from a predefined set of options, skipping the custom order rigmarole.

So in general I would argue that a retail business model should directly address customer service expectations versus true price. Lower prices mean we expect less from customer service representatives and so it is reasonable to limit their ability to influence the overall customer experience. This stuff is worth fixing, otherwise you could spend the next ten years going into the same few restaurants and having the same bad experiences.