Volume 11, Issue 2 - March 2010

A Manager's View

Listen to Your Customers and Say “Yes”
by Keith Castleman

Recently, my job took me to a restaurant in McAllen, Texas, where I had an experience that can translate into a valuable business lesson for all of us. When I travel, I usually like to eat whatever food for which the town I’m in is famous. So, when I’m in Memphis it’s barbecue, steak in Dallas, clams in Boston, you get the idea. In McAllen, I wanted to eat some authentic Mexican food so I drove around a while until I found what looked like a nice, clean restaurant that served Mexican food.

I was a little nervous walking in. I wasn’t nervous about the food, but nervous because I didn’t want to be the problem guy. You know the kind of guy I’m talking about, the guy who says “To Go!” when he’s ordering at the drive-through window; the guy who asks 300 questions about everything before he orders. I was a little nervous because I wanted to go to the counter, order my food the correct way and take it back to the hotel with me. I was about fourth in line, so I had a little time to look over the menu boards before it was my turn to order. The entire menu was in Spanish—all of it—not one single word on the menu was English. In an even greater disappointment, I didn’t even see words like: taco or enchilada or fajita. I was so confused; I had no idea what I was going to do when my turn came.

So here I am looking a Hispanic gentleman in the face and he says something to me that means it’s my time to order. I choked. Most of the Mexican restaurants I’ve ever eaten at have combo meals that you order by number. I didn’t see any numbers on the menu, I didn’t know what to do, so I figured they must have combination platters that just aren’t on the menu. So, I thought I would order the same thing I usually eat at my favorite Mexican place in Missouri. After a short pause I said, “I – would – like – the – number – six – to – go.” I spoke a little louder than I probably needed to and in retrospect I probably didn’t need to clearly enunciate every syllable in that sentence; furthermore, holding up six fingers was probably a little overkill but, nonetheless, I thought I had made it. I thought I had escaped without embarrassment and then in a particularly disturbing and unexpected turn of events, he started asking me questions. He asked me five or six questions and I had absolutely no idea what he was saying. I paused after the first one and finally blurted out, “No.” So, for each question, I just answered no to all of them. He looked at me a little funny like he was holding back laughter and I just stood there with a fake smile on my face. He turned around, yelled something to the kitchen with a chuckle and collected my $7.42. A couple of minutes later he handed me a brown paper bag and I grabbed it and headed for the door. The anticipation was incredible. I didn’t have the first clue what was in that bag but I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel and eat some real authentic Mexican food. My heart was beating fast, I was excited, called my wife, everything. This was going to be awesome.

When I got back to my hotel room and opened the bag, I found that I had just ordered six tacos—six tacos with nothing but meat and a hard tortilla. No lettuce, no sauce, no cheese, no tomatoes, no sour cream, nothing but ground beef in a crunchy shell!

The anticipation and nervousness that I felt while transporting my bag of unknown food is what many people in our industry are feeling right now. Everywhere I go I talk to builders and suppliers who are excited about a rebound in the housing market. I hear phrases like: “light at the end of the tunnel,” “the worst is behind us now,” and “Spring is going to be really big!” Most people in our industry are full of anticipation and hope for 2010. We have all seen our revenues decline, housing starts decline, optimism disappear and now many people feel like we made it through the worst and are very optimistic about the future. The troubling thing about most of these people is that they are doing the exact same things that they tried to do for the last couple of years with minimal results.

Every new service or product, or even a new way of quoting materials that I’ve ever implemented, has been the result of a “yes” answer that I gave to a question from a customer. In this year with so much at stake for so many suppliers, you might try going to talk to your customers and listening carefully to things they would like to see you do and, unless you want to end the year with a bag full of miscellaneous meat and taco shells, you might want to try answering “yes” to a few of those questions.

Keith Castleman is area manager of 14 stores in six states, including Dallas and Nebraska, for 84 Lumber. Mr. Castleman’s opinions are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this magazine.


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