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When I was in high school one of my part-time jobs was working as a bagboy at the local supermarket. Even though the walls were plastered with signs that said, “Carry-out is a Publix service. No tipping please,” we bagboys stuffed our pockets with the single dollar bills the neighborhood housewives slipped us for wheeling the groceries to their cars.
Publix SignI learned very quickly that there were two keys to getting good tips – being nice to my customers and making an extra effort to serve them. Besides a big smile and a happy “hello” each time I walked up to a new cash register, insisting on double-bagging, putting chicken into plastic bags to thwart leaks, and making a show of tightening the caps on Clorox bottles were all effective techniques to ensure a bigger gratuity.

This knowledge served me well a few years later when I worked as a waiter. The same two practices – smiling and being extra helpful – helped me earn the biggest tips and get regular customers. That’s why I was so surprised when a particular patron told me how unhappy she was with my service and asked me to “get the manager right away.”

I walked back to the kitchen and told the manager that the woman at table seven wanted to speak with him.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t think I did anything wrong but she’s been unhappy with everything… her food, the service. No matter what I do, she’s angry.”

We walked back to the table together and the manager introduced himself. “How can I help you?” he asked.

She immediately launched into a litany of complaints – her salad wasn’t fresh, her food wasn’t hot, her server was surly, her water glass wasn’t filled quickly enough, and so on. Finally she stopped complaining to take a breath. The manager saw his opportunity.

“I’m sorry you’ve been served so poorly and of course I’ll take care of it right away,” he purred solicitously. “But let me ask you a question. You’re not really that upset about your lunch, are you?” He paused knowingly. “What’s really wrong?”

The woman glared at him with burning malevolence and I held my breath, waiting for her to start screaming. Then all of a sudden her face dropped and her shoulders slumped – it looked like she had been deflated. “My husband left me last week,” she said quietly. “I don’t know what to do.” She burst into tears.

The manager handed over his handkerchief. Without taking his eyes off her he leaned towards me and said, “Bruce, clear off the table and go get us two cappuccinos and a big slice of cheese cake… two forks.” Then he sat down across from the sobbing woman and told her to tell him all about it.

The two of them huddled like co-conspirators through the rest of the lunch service and continued to talk long after we had cleared the restaurant. It wasn’t until we were setting up for dinner that they got up. After bidding the manager goodbye, the woman came up to me and slipped a folded piece of paper into my hand. “This is for you,” she said before she walked out.

I never found out what they talked about that afternoon but I did learn a valuable lesson. Even though the woman came into our restaurant for lunch, that wasn’t what she was buying. What she really wanted was someone to listen to her. The manager was smart and sensitive enough to know that it was his job to give his customers not what they thought they wanted but what they really wanted.

Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” A century later Steve Jobs said, “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.”

For us business owners and brand marketers these are very valuable insights. After all, when we continually surprise and delight our customers by fulfilling wants they might not even know they have, we demonstrate how much we care and why they should continue to do business with us.

Oh, and that piece of paper the restaurant customer slipped into my hand? It was a $100 bill.