Cream or Ice Cream?

This blog post could quite easily have been called ‘Another Short Pub Tale’, or ‘A Short Pub Tale XXI- This Time It’s Personal’, or suchlike. Same pub, same(ish) subject matter; I was even drinking the same beer. This place is full of systems gold dust. I’m grateful for the material.

Anyway, I was back there last night and not too far away from me was a lady and her young son who had finished their meals and were in the process of ordering dessert. The little lad asked for a Swiss roll. His mum asked if he could have ice cream with it instead of cream. (The menu stipulated that it comes with cream). Quick as a flash the waitress replied, “Of course. No problem”. She then leaned forward a little towards the lad’s mother and quietly added, “But please don’t tell anyone”.

The boy got his Swiss roll with ice cream, and mother and son were happy. The waitress’s decision was obviously the right one. The customer was happy. The pub probably secured a repeat customer. The waitress had acted in everyone’s best interests and for the right reasons. I doubt that there’s a huge cost implication in serving ice cream instead of cream anyway.

But those words, “Please don’t tell anyone” were bugging me. Why would a frontline member of staff who had the confidence to make a snap decision in the best interests of the customer and company feel vulnerable as a result of doing so? If anything, the waitress should be applauded for using her initiative and having the confidence to make such a straightforward decision without referring it to a supervisor. Is that what you’d think employers and customers would want? Of course. So why the nervousness at the prospect of being found out?

The answer is probably because the organisational culture she is working within discourages frontline decision making and supplants it with rigid company policy that only offers a one-size-fits-all option instead. What a terrible shame. What is the purpose of this pub? One would presume it has something to do with offering an excellent eating and drinking experience to its customers. If so, then I’d argue that such a restrictive approach to dessert accompaniments works against this aim, especially if staff feel uncomfortable in ‘unofficially’ considering non-standard options when requested to do so by customers.

This simple example serves to remind us that (fortunately) despite inflexible company doctrine or an organisational culture that restricts frontline decision-making, there will always be those who will do it anyway. For the right reasons. For the customer (or service user). For the company, oddly enough. Ultimately this helps absorb the variety that is present amongst customer preferences and also benefits the organisation. Surely it is better to relax unnecessary constraints and encourage freedom and responsibility to be overtly practiced by those at the frontline. In any case, people will always devise ways of circumventing inappropriate rules and barriers in order to do the right thing, but they shouldn’t have to! It’s a shame that they are made to feel like renegades for doing so.

Summary: Derestricting options and trusting (indeed encouraging) frontline staff to use their professional judgment to do the right thing pays dividends, even when this applies to ice cream. Of course, the caveat is that staff are not afforded unlimited scope to go nuts and supply a magnum of Dom Pérignon champagne in lieu of cream.

Note regarding the relationship between recent blog posts and pies, pubs, food or beer: If you are wondering whether the apparent gravitation towards food and beer-orientated posts signifies that I might be losing grip on reality, or whether it’s all just a big metaphor for police-related stuff then I won’t spoil it for you by adding to the speculation. Any similarities to anything else, ever, are purely coincidental.


About InspGuilfoyle

I am a serving Police Inspector and systems thinker. I am passionate about doing the right thing in policing. I dislike numerical targets and unnecessary bureaucracy.
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10 Responses to Cream or Ice Cream?

  1. Am enjoying your food and beer related posts (metaphors and all).

    Not sure the waitress was scared of being found out though. Two other possible explanations.

    1) From a sales perspective, by appearing to take the mother into her confidence, she made the mother feel special – the implied ‘This is our little secret – only because I like you/your child.’ This reinforces the goodwill in the deal – so encouraging the mother to reciprocate by returning (or leaving a bigger tip).

    2) From a practical perspective, although it is fine to make occasional exceptions, the waitress did not want to find herself amending every order to take account of customers’ foibles. A standardised menu makes for efficient service – customisation takes time and reduces turn-over.

    Sorry if that sounds cynical (unconnected with working in marketing).



  2. Jackie Butterworth says:

    All I can say is that I wish I worked for you .!!!

  3. ThinkPurpose says:

    Huw, You mention that a “standardised menu makes for efficient service”, but does it make for effective service? There is nothing worth being done efficiently if it isn’t effective, i.e. why bother only selling swiss roll with cream if a customer wants ice cream, especially a kid.
    Swiss roll is traditionally a children’s cake, and ice cream is what a child might probably prefer over cream. But this is just conjecture, just as the pub made a conjecture when it set the menu, and according to the Inspector’s article, removed the ability of the waitress to shape the service to the paying customer when appropriate according to her judgement.

    I wonder how many other occasions a child looked at the swiss roll but didn’t want cream with it, or spoke with a different waitress who felt she couldn’t break the policy of the pub and so got swiss roll with cream and consequently DIDNT ask her mum if they could go back to “that nice place with the swiss roll” next time they were out shopping and fancied a bite.
    All conjecture of course, but better to test this. Give waitresses the ability to exercise their judgement so they can give the customer the best service, i.e. the service they need. Not the service that some distant policy officer in the brewery chain head office thinks is best practice. The person who knows best is the person closest to the customer when they are facing that customer. Even McDonalds will customise their food for you if you ask.

    “customer foibles”. Is this like “I have needs, you have foibles, he has unreasonable demands.”? ;D

    • Your last point exactly 😉 – and yes to the rest of your points – I was pitching a cynical reply from the pub’s perspective – but you are right – much better to give the customer what they want (within reason).

  4. Dave Hasney says:

    It may be yet another “big metaphor” but a pertinent one. The bottom line is the ‘customer’ at the pub is no different from a police ‘customer’ trying to secure a ‘service’ that fits their particular need, and one being paid for handsomley, by taxes in the latter case.

    Obviously in police terms there are some limitations however; the issue should be about doing the ‘right’ thing (within the law) and not being constrained by fear of retribution from managers for failing to apply the one size fits all protocol.

    Since retiring from the police I have returned (part-time) to the pub and hospitality trade, and thankfully, I have a manager who trusts me to do the right thing. Just a pity I had to endure thirty years where the latter part was full of people trying to stop the ‘right’ thing being done!

  5. Blue Eyes says:

    “This place is full of systems gold dust.”

    You are such a geek! I love this blog.

    I don’t suppose you ever saw it and it’s now deleted but I once did a blog post about onion rings at a well-known restaurant chain. I asked for a “side” of onion rings and what arrived – at a cost of £1.75 or thereabouts – was a portion of TWO onion rings.

    Obviously I made a fuss and the manager had to be called over. He admitted that the portions were set at HQ and he had no control over them because everything was audited to the nearest chip. I said well then take away the onion rings, and give me the address to write to HQ. He disappeared.

    A few minutes later the waiter arrived with a huge bowl brimming with freshly deep-fried onion rings, presumably a whole box worth of them which the manager could reasonably then claim had never been delivered.

    I felt I had to eat them all. And felt very sick all afternoon.

    I’m sure there is a moral in there somewhere.

  6. Haha, great story! I’d have expected the onion rings to be covered in gold dust at that price.

  7. Crofty says:

    ‘From a practical perspective, although it is fine to make occasional exceptions, the waitress did not want to find herself amending every order to take account of customers’ foibles. A standardised menu makes for efficient service – customisation takes time and reduces turn-over.’:

    This presupposes that efficiency = speed of service. If the purpose of service is even partly to have happy customers then the customisation actually improves efficiency in that sense.

  8. ginnersinner says:

    “the ‘customer’ at the pub is no different from a police ‘customer’ trying to secure a ‘service’ that fits their particular need”

    Not at all – the police ‘customer’ often demands things they can’t have, or mis-describes the purpose of their visit to try and affect the ‘service’ they receive, and equates ‘bad service’ with a result which is at odds with what they wanted.

    We’re not like a restaurant – in many cases we can’t replace cream with ice-cream, and a lot of the time we’re not there to please the customer either.

  9. Pingback: The 4 types of response to the question “Would you like a Pudding?” in a restaurant | systemsthinkingforgirls

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