Goethe’s favourite vegetable

Categories: GQ, News, Opinion


I once did a talk to Selfridges managers about service, in which I told a story about a flight I took on Germany’s No.1 airline a few years back. For once I was at sharp end of the plane where the service is supposed to be akin to what you might expect whilst visiting an 18th-century aristocrat and so I was very excited about the few hours ahead of me. The menu was handed out as if we were at The Gavroche and for a moment we all forgot that the meal was being served by a slightly cheesy man in a tight-fitting polyester suit and consisted of some pre-packed meals from a tiny oven by the toilets.

The menu spelt out the various options available to us but there in the vegetables section was the description “Goethe’s favourite vegetables”. “Wow,” I thought, “The airline ‘chefs’ have taken the trouble to research an obscure, little-known vegetable from a small town somewhere in Germany that the great philosopher once used to enjoy. So when the stewardess came round, I asked her what Goethe’s favourite vegetables were, to which she replied, “Onions”.

The point of this is service and what it really means. What it doesn’t mean is corporate programmes and ridiculous overclaims. What I wanted was a simple, tasty meal, not someone to pretend that the onion was something that it wasn’t.

Another example: I took my car to be fixed recently which the garage failed to do three times in a row. But I still received a call three days later from a woman with a telephone headset to ask if I was happy with my “experience”.  “I’m glad you called…” You don’t need to know the rest; needless to say, I was pretty obnoxious. She had no idea what to do next because nobody had given her a script entitled “What to say when the customer is livid”. The corporate types had thought that simply by ringing me and asking about my experience, I would feel good about that experience.

Real service is about people wanting to help you. It’s literally that simple. If you are a marketing or retail person, please take that back to your next meeting and tell everyone that they can save vast amounts of money on marketing programmes aimed at making us believe that poor service is actually good service by instead hiring people who actually enjoy helping other people.

How many times have you been in a restaurant where the waiter clearly doesn’t want to be serving you? I feel like asking them, “What made you apply for this job? Didn’t you realise that it would involve serving people? You’re a waiter, for God’s sake.”

Service is a product. We all adore good service and we shop in places where we are treated well. We will pay more if we are treated well and we will be incredibly loyal. Good service can keep a poor restaurant going for years against the diners’ better judgement because human beings love (and I mean love) being looked after by someone who enjoys it.

The longer you are in a shop or restaurant, the better the service needs to be. I can live with my newsagent being rude while I pick up my copy of GQ, but when you get a suit fitted and spend half an hour with the tailor, it’s important that he appears to enjoy it as much as you do. It’s also more important the more you spend.

We all know this, so why doesn’t it happen very often? I was recently in a New York hotel that was probably the hottest place in town (for this week at least), but the service was awful. Everything I asked for was a chore, the staff were sarcastic and made it clear, purely through tone of voice, that I was wrong whenever there was a misunderstanding, and at one point I was ever so slightly nervous that I was about to hit someone, which I haven’t done since I was at school. Everything was done to perfection except the service. In a hotel, service is at least 50 per cent of the product, yet The Coolest Hotel In New York had totally overlooked it.

So what’s the answer? I have to say that I think the only way to create good service is to hire nice staff. You can’t teach it. Good service comes from people who have humility, not arrogance. If you’ve read Malcom Gladwell’s Blink, you will know that you can tell what somebody is like in five minutes, so it doesn’t take a series of interviews.

I honestly believe that a business with poor service could improve their sales by 20 per cent or more overnight, and their loyalty by a multiple of that figure. If you’re a customer then please ask the question “Why did you apply for this job”, when you get bad service. And if you’re a business owner, just remember that a customer is for life, not just for Christmas.

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