“Uh oh. They put mayonnaise on my sandwich.” I’ll bet I’ve said it at least one hundred times. I do not like mayo, so I order my sandwiches plain always. Often I don’t get my way at first, and the sandwich shows up with a gob of the white stuff. Most times, the resolution is easy. I politely return the sandwich, and they change the bread out. It is never a big deal. I tip them well, I leave full and happy, and I return for another sandwich at some point in the future. Easy living on both sides of the relationship.
Except for one time long ago in Sewanee, Tennessee where my now husband’s best friend Tommy shot me a look of horror and said, “Don’t take back your sandwich. Don’t do it. I’ll buy you another one!” “What?” I laughed. I thought he was joking. After all, I didn’t know him that well, but I’d never experienced this type of resistance. Dan and I were a few months into dating, and already he knew I’d send back anything with mayo on it, and he never seemed to mind. “You’re not going to buy me another sandwich, Tommy! Don’t be ridiculous.” “No seriously,” he said. “I WANT to buy you another one. Please let me. This is so embarrassing.” I sat back down, giggled a little, awkward in that space between “is he kidding or is this really going to be a problem.” He was Dan’s friend, we were early on, so I felt I needed Tommy’s approval. If I returned the sandwich, I would embarrass him and leave a bad impression. I would be a demanding perfectionist. If I didn’t return the sandwich, he would buy me another, but the cafe, newly opened by a childhood friend of the boys, would lose its teaching moment. What a quandary.
What Tommy didn’t know about me is I am a dedicated consumer advocate, have been since birth (I think I gave the guy with the forceps a dirty look–he could’ve done better). I looked at Tommy square in the eyes, smiled, added another little chuckle to lighten up the message, and then I said, “How do you know they won’t put mayo on the next sandwich we order?” “They won’t,” he answered. “I’ll personally assure it.” “But what if they do? Are you going back there to do quality control?” I laughed at the thought of it. “Look, if it comes back with mayo, I won’t eat that one either, and we will have wasted two sandwiches rather than just the one. I don’t even need a whole new sandwich. I just want a single slice of bread to replace the one with mayo on it.” He reached towards my basket to take the sandwich and said, “Here. I’ll scrape it off for you.” I looked over at Dan and saw he was laughing at the two of us; he knew this exchange would not have two winners. I said, “Tommy, you don’t know me that well, but we might as well get to know each other because I really like Dan. Here’s the thing: It is more than just the mayo with me. Just consider the mayo a tiny little symbol of the potential of failure for Ashley and her business.” Tommy’s eyes widened in disbelief, but I kept going. “You see, I firmly believe that for you to buy me another sandwich, you would be hurting Ashley’s business. I know this seems counterintuitive to you as I’m sure you think I’ll be hurting her business if I return it. But in my mind, the only way they, the cafe staff, will improve is if they realize their mistakes. Yes, I can scrape my own bread and yes you can afford to buy me another sandwich, but for me that’s not the point. Genuinely, I don’t think that is what’s best for everyone.” I still had him, so I took a little breath and kept going. “If I take this sandwich back to the counter and politely ask for another slice of bread without mayo on it, then the next time someone orders a sandwich with ‘hold the mayo, please’, it is more likely that the kitchen staff will pay just a bit more attention to detail, they will save one more slice of bread, the customer will be pleased, will return for future sandwiches, will even tell her friends it’s a really good spot, and Ashley’s business will grow and thrive.” At this point, Tommy’s eyes were starting to glaze over, and I was getting hungry, so I concluded my little rant with, “Call me crazy, but I’m taking back the sandwich.” As I got up to go, Tommy just shrugged his shoulders and smiled, a side glance at Dan that said, “better you than me, buddy.”
I’ll admit that as I write that story today, I cringe a bit at my naivete. Tommy has a Harvard MBA and runs an extremely successful business himself. I have a feeling he saw my mayo fit as puerile and ridiculous, and I am confident he could have taken my logic, turned it, and made a solid argument back at me (let’s face it, he could have crushed me), but he’s a nice guy in an awkward situation, so he let it go. I would bet I changed nothing in his world view that day, but even now, more than ever, I stand by my mayo foot stomping. At its core, it is about consumer feedback in that liminal moment of early relationship building between a customer and a business. It is no different than the early stages of the relationship between people–the give and take must be mutually agreeable for the attraction to continue. Later, once there is loyalty, mistakes can happen and the relationship will endure, but how those mistakes are handled, especially early on can make or break what might be a long-lasting love.
Enough with the histrionics and weak attempt at metaphor, here’s the end of the story: I married Dan and he married me, and 25 years later he actually intercepts my sandwiches and sends them back if the mayo is there. “A good partner always anticipates the other’s needs,” as he likes to say. Ashley’s restaurant is no longer there. Not sure whether she lost money or just lost interest. I am sure it’s none of my business either way, but it does lead me to this:
Out of 10 “Top 10 Reasons for Small Business Success,” guess what one directive all of the lists have in common? Drum roll please. You may open the envelope. And the answer is: “Stay Focused on Your Customer.”