Reality Checking Failure

If you’ve been reading CCS for awhile, you know I’m not big on blame.  I’m big on the seeing there is a problem and coming up with solutions part of assessing failure.

I am part of a listserv for my town.  Mostly I skulk, keeping up on local news and happenings from a homeowner’s perspective.  Recently there was an interesting discussion that was born out of a comment from a regular poster who informed the group that a local, boardwalk coffee/bakery shop had closed up.  He made an offhanded comment about commercial rents going up on the boardwalk and mostly talked about the importance of supporting small local business in our fledgling little seaside community.

After reading his post, I quickly had the following thought:  Dude, rent had nothing to do with the failure of that business and everything to do with the horrible customer service and pissy attitude of the owner. I decided to reply to his post with a couple of anecdotes of my own experience as a customer at this shop, which sparked a fascinating discussion and saw a flood of very civil posts about customer service and just how much people were willing to take in order to keep small business flourishing and when it became just not worth it.

This bakery by far had some of the best baked goods in NJ and probably one of the most divine macaroons I have ever eaten.  His coffee was mediocre; but, there is no great coffee in Asbury Park; so, that was not surprising.  But, this man, who owned the shop and worked behind the counter was just unpleasant, abrupt and on occasion, rude.  The last time I had been in there was early this summer when I had a guest visiting from Oregon and she said, “ooh a bakery.”  So, we went in.  There were two people ahead of us in line and one of them asked for iced coffee which he began to retrieve from a refrigerator.  As he held the door open he turned and said:  Does anyone else want an iced coffee while i’m over here?  He asked this question as if he was totally being put out.  When the shop fell silent, he said: I guess that’s what they mean when they call me the coffee nazi; but, it just makes sense if i’m over here anyway. My friend looked at me and I shrugged. We got our treats, which were delivered brusquely with no thank you and walked out.  My friend said, That was weird.  I replied: I know.  He’s always like that.  I almost never go in there.

Further down the boardwalk is a seasonal business called the Sandwitch.  The owner is funny, warm and kind and this is all delivered while under pressure because her business is thriving and there were always lines and 2 or 3 more workers crammed into her little hut making sandwiches and smoothies and coffee drinks.  I probably went there almost a dozen times until she closed for the season in October.

I want to support small business in my community.  I’d rather give my $$ to a person taking a risk on my town, contributing to it’s renaissance and what we in Asbury Park call, Buying In.  But, you gotta give me something.  Even a robotic thank you would have helped me support this guy.

And now I’m back to the concept of blame.  Apparently this owner believes that his business didn’t survive the economy, or at least that was what he said on the listserv.  But, that is just not true.  Here in Asbury Park we broke beach attendance records by something like 40% and my neighbor said she hadn’t seen the boardwalk as packed as it was on July 4th since the 6os, before AP’s decline.  And to top it off, his product was excellent.   New Jersey has a small but loyal foodie base that will get in their cars and travel for good food and their word on alone has probably saved more than one small business that didn’t get enough traffic the old fashioned way.  This is a case where blame really does lie at the feet of the proprietor and  if he can’t see where he went wrong I suggest he not try any more entrepreneurial pursuits.

It is important when there is failure to swallow pride and really SEE the failure.  Maybe it was just a bad idea.  Maybe the key people were just not in roles they can succeed in.  (The owner of the bakeshop put himself in the number one customer service role: counterman; but, he couldn’t meet the challenge.  He should have hired someone with better skills.)  Maybe you assumed too much about your customers.  Failure is the time when tough questions should be asked; but, it is also when the slate gets cleaned in a way that really innovative ideas can come out of the rubble.

If you roll out a new service in your library and it doesn’t get used or fails to meet projections, do you chalk it up as something the public just didn’t want or do you really assess the failure to find out exactly where you missed the target?  Just maybe, you learned something in that failure that will help you better serve your community.  Don’t assume, just because it’s a great service that they will come.  In my library, we are talking about ways to promote the Playaway collection (self contained audio books) because we just aren’t getting the circulation statistics we want.  We could just shut it down and reduce or eliminate the budget for them; but, maybe the failure is in our marketing  or education of the public.   Clearly we need to try a few things before giving up.  Shine the light on your process before blaming the public.  Bakery man might feel better about his failure if he blames the public:  they just didn’t come regularly enough to sustain this business; but, he might have learned more if he listened to his customers and read the online reviews of his business, which were almost all praising his product and slamming his service.

Get feedback from staff, from your customers, from anyone with an opinion and open your mind to it.  It’s okay to fail; but, get something out of it or it truly is just failure.

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