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The Real Cost of Giving Terrible Customer Service What you can learn from one startup that botched a delivery and lost me as a customer forever.

By Carol Roth

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

I'd like to offer you a first-hand account of how one company lost me as a customer in the span of about two short hours.

I frequent businesses where I've had great experiences. I also don't cook. So, when we had a casual party recently, I ordered via DiningIn Chicago "DIC," an order delivery service that I had used previously and loved. However, our experience this time shows exactly how not to treat your existing customers.

I ordered food through DiningIn Chicago from Portillo's, the same restaurant that I had used previously with DIC. Portillo's, through the DiningIn Chicago site, offer catering or individual items for order. What's great about the catering setup is that it allows you to build your own sandwiches to spec and keep them warm. The items are supposed to arrive in a chafing dish and I also ordered the full heating kit with racks and heat, like I did previously.

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Our order arrived with a very friendly delivery man, who unpacked the order for us. However, as we inspected the order, there was no catering set up. Instead of getting pans of hot dogs, hamburgers and separate buns and fixings (yes, I can't even make hot dogs and hamburgers...), we got sets of assembled hot dogs and hamburgers. This was a problem for three reasons:

  1. There were toppings like peppers, mustard and pickles that not every attendee, especially the kids, wanted.
  2. It would be hard to keep the items warmed appropriately, especially for our guests who were arriving late.
  3. I had spent money on the chafing dishes and liquid heat, which were pretty much useless at this point.

Additionally, one piece of cake that we had ordered was missing.

The driver was very nice and said that he had inquired with the restaurant upon pickup as he thought that it was strange that there was no discernable use for chafing dishes. He felt bad about the mix-up and we reviewed the order, where "catering" was clearly delineated.

Because our order was not filled correctly, the DiningIn Chicago driver said that he would have DIC bring us new food. I started to pack up the incorrect items to give him to take back, but he told us to keep them. I was skeptical, but he said they couldn't do anything with them anyways and suggested we give them to our neighbors.

It was unfortunate to not have our food correctly delivered at the requested time, but we appreciated that it was getting solved (or so we thought). While we waited, we packed up some food for our doorman and our neighbors, as suggested, to not let it go to waste.

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Sometime later, the phone rang and it was a DiningIn Chicago representative. He asked what the problem was, which was strange as he should have known it at that point, but I explained that we had received the wrong item format for the hot dogs and hamburgers. He asked if those were the only items that we needed replaced. I explained we were still missing one piece of cake and also, the rest of the food that had been delivered was now getting cold. Some could be salvaged, but the French fries would clearly not be great by the time the new food arrived, so I suggested that they should consider replacing those as well.

The rep said that he would call the restaurant and get it sorted out.

Then the DiningIn Chicago rep called back. He informed us that the restaurant will replace the hot dogs and hamburgers, but needs the old ones back.

I told him that he could have the ones we still had remaining back, but on the counsel of the driver, who told us to keep them and give them to neighbors, we had given some of them away.

The rep then took a very condescending tone with me, basically insinuating that I was somehow trying to scam the restaurant out of a few hot dogs and burgers and insisting that it was the restaurant's policy to get them back.

I tried to calmly explain that we didn't order through the restaurant, we ordered through DIC and we acted on DIC's instructions, the entity that had brought us the wrong order.

The DIC rep actually had the nerve to tell me that the driver was not a representative of DiningIn Chicago and that we shouldn't have listened to him, and that if we wanted the correct order, we would have to pay again.

Long story short, the DIC rep claimed that it was my fault that they screwed up my order and that I followed their delivery driver's instructions.

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I was getting aggravated at this point -- I had people at my house that were waiting to eat and not only was the DIC rep not being helpful, he was trying to make it my fault and problem.

After two hours from the original delivery, the first driver showed up again and apologized profusely for the entire situation. As he unpacked the new items, the fixings were separate, but the hot dogs and hamburgers were still wrapped up in buns, in one dish (still no need for our chafing materials and no good way to keep them warm) and the additional cake was still missing, which our driver said we would be credited for. We also had soggy French fries and cold pasta, as no previous items were replaced to give us one, cohesive, correct and simultaneous order.

We gave back the remaining dogs and burgers to the driver, who was horrified that we were asked to do so, and when we informed him that the DiningIn Chicago rep said that he, as a driver, wasn't really a rep for the company and his word didn't count, he enthusiastically refuted that and reassured us that he in fact was a rep and that his word was meaningful (as is obvious, since he was wearing their shirt, carrying their bags and delivering the food).

Mistakes happen and customers can deal with challenges, but the response is what matters. In this instance, I can only hold DIC accountable, since they are the ones we directly engaged for business and to whom I paid the service fee on delivery. Instead of making things right, they tried to blame us, which is insane given that we placed the order correctly. We ended up with a house full of hungry people who had half-cold food and who witnessed the entire debacle.

Now, not only will we not use the service in the future, none of my guests will either, nor will anyone we tell, as people tend to share customer service stories, good and bad.

This company will likely spend a substantial amount of money trying to find new customers through ads. However, they had the opportunity to enhance their relationship with existing customers (and their customer's guests and friends) through providing great service. They didn't and that is a costly business mistake.

For the record, I contacted DinginIn via its customer support email and alerted them of my intention to write about this experience for Entrepreneur.com. Nobody from the company responded.

Companies spend so much time trying to grow by focusing on attracting new customers that they often forget the value of their existing customers. It is much easier to get your existing customers to buy more from you and to help you find new customers through their advocacy than it is for you alone to try to garner a new customer.

Empower your staff to make their No. 1 job taking care of the customers. That is the best marketing ROI you can generate.

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Carol Roth

Entrepreneur, TV host and small business expert

Carol Roth is the creator of the Future File™ legacy planning system, a “recovering” investment banker, business advisor, entrepreneur and best-selling author. She is also a reality TV show judge, media contributor and host of Microsoft’s Office Small Business Academy. A small business expert, Roth has worked with companies of all sizes on everything from strategy to content creation and marketing to raising capital. She’s been a public company director and invests in mid-stage companies, as well.

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