When I coach agencies and producers and introduce a new idea, I almost always tell them that I am going to start from a point of black and white, but we have to work to find their shade of gray. The point being, rarely will one rigid way be the right answer. It doesn’t matter if it’s in sales or customer service, the right shade of gray is worth finding.

I have been reminded of this a couple of times recently at different locations of Panera Bread. If you aren’t familiar with them, they are bakeries that also have breakfast, lunch and dinner menus.

It has become very apparent to me that they have a training process that focuses on black and white answers to situations, rather than helping their employees find the right shade of gray to service their customers.

The first incident was several months ago on a trip to Kansas City. I stepped up to the counter at 10:33 and ordered a breakfast sandwich to which I was told in no uncertain terms,

We quit serving breakfast at 10:30.” I pleaded, “But it’s only a couple minutes past.” To which I was told rather coldly, “I know.”

I muttered something under my breath about her attitude and turned and left, thinking that it was clearly an individual problem and not organizational.

Fast forward to just a couple of weeks ago on another trip, this time in Baltimore, but to another Panera Bread location. I walked in, stepped up to the counter at exactly 10:30 (according to their own clock), and ordered my breakfast sandwich only to be told (yep, you guessed it),

“We quit serving breakfast at 10:30.”

No further explanation.

I immediately flashed back to Kansas City and found myself not ready to accept her refusal. I said, “But it’s still 10:30” and believe it or not, she responded the same as the Kansas City woman, “I know.”

I pushed again, “Can we at least ask the kitchen if they can still make up a sandwich?” She reminded me that they quit serving breakfast at 10:30 and, besides, they were out of eggs.

These two counter workers took the easy way out, they gave me the black and white answer they had been given themselves. I’m sure it’s right there in their training manual, in black and white.

I now believe that it’s both an organizational and individual problem.

I get that restaurants have to switch menus over at certain times. My point here isn’t even that I didn’t get my breakfast sandwich (although I was not very happy about that). The point was the rigid way in which they responded created an extremely negative experience. What’s worse is that, in both cases, there was an easy opportunity to help me understand WHY they couldn’t give me what I wanted.

They could have turned a negative answer to my request into a customer service moment.

They missed an opportunity to tell me about other delicious items they have on the menu and turn me into a raving fan. The KC counter worker could have told me,

“Oh, I’m so sorry, but our kitchen has already put all of the breakfast food away and are preparing for our lunch crowd. I know it’s not what you came in for, but you should really try “X sandwich”. It’s one of my favorites, and I think you would really like it!”

Or, she could have tried to help me get what I wanted by asking the kitchen if they could make one last breakfast sandwich for the morning (a terrific shade of gray by the way).

In Baltimore, she could have just gotten to the bottom line when I ordered. Instead of hiding behind their black and white timeframe, she could have told me,

“I’m so sorry, but we had so many others who enjoy our breakfast sandwiches this morning, that we completely ran out of eggs”.

I may have questioned their inventory process, but at least I would have had an excuse that I understood.

What are you doing to make sure your employees are always looking for the right shade of gray?

Here’s a hint. You may think you are doing the right thing by providing a training process/manual that gives them all of the answers, but all you are doing is leading them into a black and white world. Only when you allow, and expect, your employees to find the answer on their own, will they find the right shade of gray to turn customers into loyal supporters of your business.


Photo by antoniodiaz

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