The writing on the card

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 March, 1998, 12:00am

Somewhere deep in the recesses of the Pacific Coffee Company's storerooms are almost six years' worth of cards. The scribblings on them are a barometer of Hong Kong's attitudes towards the birth and growth of coffee culture here.

These feedback cards are, to the company at least, a treasure trove of information on likes, dislikes, suggestions, favourite locations, requests, complaints, comments on service, quality, cleanliness and variety. Each one is noted, logged and, most importantly, replied to.

'We make a point of calling every person back,' says Pacific Coffee Company's general manager, Philip Oakden. 'If customers take the time to fill in the cards, they deserve a personal response.' The customer response card can be a lifeline for those companies that use it wisely. Especially now, when the jumpy economy sinks its teeth into Hong Kong restaurateurs' once-packed diaries of table reservations.

Listening to customers and taking on board what they say are a few of the ways to deal with the pain, most restaurateurs say.

'It's not just finding out who our customers are,' Mr Oakden says. 'It's finding out what they want and how we can give it to them.' While a few restaurant managers in Hong Kong meet complaints with aggression and legal threats, others are jumping at the chance to discuss more than the specials of the day with customers.

'This market is getting very tough,' Mr Oakden says. 'If you can help people get what they want . . .' Receiving complaints is the first step in the process. Dealing with the customer who made the comment is the second. The third is the action taken as a result.

Mr Oakden says receiving and responding to customer comments is not enough. 'We need to find out how to get things better.' One of the comments he has received, for example, was about the range of newspapers carried in the stores. 'One man wanted a different newspaper. I can look into it and add the newspaper if possible. If I'm adding to customer satisfaction, then it's worth it.' Different restaurants deal with complaints in different ways. The two or three response cards a day that land on Mr Oakden's desk are dealt with personally the same day. 'Customers really appreciate it,' he says.

Oliver's, too, attempts to respond as quickly as possible, says marketing assistant Amy Chan. Even though Oliver's Super Sandwiches positions its cards less prominently in its stores than the Pacific Coffee Company, it also places a high priority on using the information received to maximum advantage. Uses include developing and upgrading customer service training and systems.

Oliver's has developed a second source of customer feedback - a hotline. The hotline number is printed on all Oliver's takeaway bags, along with regular telephone and fax numbers. 'We want customers to feel warm and comfortable when visiting our shop,' Ms Chan says. Anything less deserves a complaint.

At Oliver's, the customer feedback card is filtered through a multi-layered corporate process that begins at the general manager's desk and ends back at the branch. In between, the customer is contacted, apologised to if necessary, and asked for further details and suggestions.

A customer service meeting is held once a week, and once a month Oliver's staff attend a customer concern meeting, where suggestions and examples from the response cards are used as training tools to improve service.

Despite the growing popularity of response cards, some owners and managers point out there is no substitute for personal attention on the restaurant floor.

'One of our strategies is for key people to be on the floor when the customers are,' says Andy Hickl of the group which owns Wyndham Street Deli, La Bodega and Wyndham Street Thai.

This promotes interaction between the restaurant owners and their customers from the start, and not just when there is a complaint.

Mr Oakden acknowledges the benefits of personal interaction, and the impossibility of being in more than one place at the same time. The customer response card, he admits, can be used to 'find out the problems when you are not around'.

Yet, the customer response form should not be used as a substitute for personal attention, but as an additional tool in the customer interaction process.

Most companies - predictably - deny receiving many complaints. The most common responses, they say, ask for additional products.

The ubiquitous request at the Pacific Coffee Company are for new products, such as milk cookies, and new locations, such as in Tsim Sha Tsui East and Chai Wan.

All reasonable requests are considered, Mr Oakden promises. 'People want things,' he adds, 'but they don't always realise what it takes for us to deliver.' Customers also comment on the constant rotation of managerial staff throughout Pacific Coffee's branches. 'Sometimes they say they want one or another manager or staff member back in a particular store.' The worst possible position for response card managers is dealing with the anonymous negative complaint.

'You can't do anything about it and it's really frustrating,' Mr Oakden says. 'We got an anonymous complaint about the Times Square store being closed for two days over Lunar New Year.

'But we didn't have a choice. Our location is within a store that was closed for the holidays.

'The sad thing is that we couldn't respond.'