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Service guru Farrell: Take care of your customers and they’ll be back often

Some customer service stories become legendary, like the pickle story from veteran restaurateur Robert Farrell. A Brooklyn, N.Y., native, Farrell founded Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour and Restaurant in Portland, Ore., in 1963.As the concept grew, it became known for the juicy dill pickles that came with the meals. One day a customer asked the server for an extra pickle. She told him it would be an extra 45 cents. The customer was incensed and wrote an angry letter to Farrell. Although Farrell knew the server was trying to do the right thing, he realized the message of customer service was getting lost as the chain expanded. He began giving motivational talks to employees. “Just give ‘em the pickle” became management’s war cry. Farrell took it further and wrote a book called “Give ‘Em the Pickle and They’ll Be Back.”

The book led to a motivational business for Farrell, who eventually sold the ice cream parlor restaurants to Marriott. He later founded a chain of pizza restaurants and in the 1980s founded a casual-dining restaurant group, Pacific Coast Restaurants. PCR was acquired last year by Seattle-based Restaurants Unlimited. Now in his 80s, the Vancouver, Wash.-resident has retired from the restaurant business, but he is currently working on an update of the pickle book with Rob Gage, former director of training for PCR.

What exactly do you mean by “give ‘em the pickle?”

Take care of the customer. If they need something, get it for them. We are here to serve them. We’re not just trying to make a buck.

But doesn’t an operator need to be concerned about the bottom line?

You have to understand you can’t nickel and dime customers to death. The average [owner] thinks he won’t make money, but if you want to make money, then you have to make customers come back. That’s how we make money in this business—repeat customers.

And they’ll come back for good service?

If you take care of them, they will come back week after week, year after year. Do not make it hard for them to enjoy themselves. Today, if you want to split an entrée at a restaurant, they charge you a fee. That’s ridiculous.

Say hello to customers when they come in and thank them when they leave. So many places never say hello. You walk in the door and no one talks to you; you leave and no one says thank you on your way out. Without repeat business, you will go out of business in a couple of years.

How do you keep employees concerned about customer service?

A lot has to do with hiring the right people. Hire nice people. You can’t train someone to be nice, you have to hire them. Once you have a nice person, you can train them. A person who is rude, who is mad at the world, who thinks the world owes him something—don’t bother with him. Let him go work for the competition.

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