“Is that your own milk madam?” I asked the horrified young mother – a lesson in how to recover from a Customer Care faux pas.

Business is tough. There is much competition out there fighting for the same Euro so the question you and I should be asking ourselves is, “How can we set ourselves apart from the competition, how can we stand out from the herd?”

All business is all about people. It doesn’t matter what you are selling or providing, that product or service is going to be consumed (or at least purchased) by a person somewhere and so you and I would do well to consider Customer Service as at least one of the ways we can differentiate ourselves in a crowded marketplace.

Since I fell into my career in hospitality back in 1980, I have been interested in the customer care phenomenon. People buy from people they like. Do they like you or your competition more?

Recently I created a vlog where I made the argument that anything worth doing is worth doing badly, at least until you learn to do it well. And so it went with me; wait until you hear… you actually won’t believe it.

By the way, the background to this snippet from my book, “Feeding Johnny – how to build a business despite the roadblocks”* is whereby I got offered a job to work as a cashier in a self-service restaurant while I studied at night with a view to becoming a school teacher.

Here’s what happened…

Carry the Customer’s Tray.

“Is that your own milk madam?” I asked the horrified young mother who was pushing a buggy with a newborn whilst attempting to balance her self-service tray on which stood a baby bottle ¾ full of white liquid. Her disgusted look instantly made me aware that I had made a mistake; we often sold parents a glass of milk which they put in a baby’s bottle and my question was simply intended to clarify whether the cashier should charge for it or had she brought it from home! Mortified!!! But that’s what happens when you’re learning your trade.

I started working in the food industry by accident. I made mistakes (clearly!) but I also learned quickly. I enjoyed it. And when you enjoy something and are willing to work hard and learn, you get good at it and when you get good at something, you get ahead. And so it went for me.

Despite my embarrassing faux pas, the service levels were so great in our restaurants in the mid ‘80’s that we were awarded several national Bord Failte Awards for same. It was a heady time…

“You could make a career out of this.” Mr Halpin had landed in a seat next to me at my first Christmas party with his company. I didn’t quite know what to say. I certainly was enjoying myself; I hate to admit it but I smoked at the time and my wages allowed for 10 cigs a day, 20 on a Saturday, a few drinks, zero responsibility, good fun. The Irish grinds in Mr Craven’s house had become just that, a grind. The appeal of a career in teaching was losing its lustre as I looked forward to giving up my newly found income to go to college. “I’m opening a new restaurant in the ILAC Centre next year and a guy like you could go far.”

So the die was cast. By Christmas 1980 I had binned the idea of Teacher Training College, I had retired from the Irish grinds and I got stuck in to an industry that offered the complete opposite to primary teaching. I had lined myself up for a career of LONG hours and SHORT holidays. Funny old rock ‘n’ roll world. But I believe this was meant to be.

I loved it. I became great at my job. We were ‘flying’ as a company. The ILAC centre opened as the most modern shopping centre in Ireland in 1981 and Hallins Restaurant opened with me as a trainee manager; I had graduated to wearing the morning suit complete with silver tie and fresh red carnation. I looked the part.

Mr Halpin was ahead of his time. He and Barney Neilan were ex Dublin’s Gresham Hotel, hailing from a period when the Gresham was the Gresham if you know what I mean and where exceptional service was where it was at. So they created an entirely unique restaurant experience in both Clery’s and the ILAC. Both were traditional (at the time) self-service restaurants, where you picked up a tray, slid it along a rail past the desserts, salads, confectionery, hot counter, beverage counter and cash register and then took your tray to find a seat. In the early ‘80’s the typical self-service experience was all too often second rate, but Halpin and Neilan raised the bar significantly. They carried the customer’s tray to the table.

As a service it set us apart from the competition: as a tool in our trade, it allowed us manage and optimize our seating layout guaranteeing faster throughput and more satisfied clients.

I have to admit I became great at carrying the Customer’s Tray. In fact I was superb at it. Carrying the Customer’s Tray exceeded the customer’s expectation by a mile and guaranteed satisfaction and most importantly return custom. It was a winning formula.

Carrying the Customer’s Tray taught me that when it’s all boiled down; exceptional service will win the day. So I made a decision circa 1985 that, even though Mr Halpin paid my wages, I was self-employed; I was working for me. I would become the best in my field….”

What are you doing to set yourself apart in your marketplace, how are you managing to carry the customer’s tray?


MORE: If you enjoyed that and would like to read/watch last week’s Blog/Vlog on why organisations get blamed for an employee’s incompetence – click here.

FREE AUDIO BOOK: If would like a complimentary copy of the ‘Feeding Johnny – How to Build a Business Despite the Roadblocks’ in audio, narrated by yours truly so you get all the nuances, feel free to grab one here.

STAY CONNECTED: If this is your thing, consider joining in the conversation here.

Thanks for thinking with me.

Yours truly,


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4 Responses to ““Is that your own milk madam?” I asked the horrified young mother – a lesson in how to recover from a Customer Care faux pas.”
  1. Lisa Chalfa

    Another great blog Colm on a topic I feel passionate about…the Customer Experience. The sooner businesses realise this is what will make or break their business the better. “Over delivering on the promise’ is essential in order to stand out from competitors. This is not difficult to implement and going ‘the extra mile’ is something I ask everyone I work with to do. Thanks for this simple and great example.

  2. Tommy O Brien

    Nice message and So True. This surely has world appeal.. Watching this on my mobile phone at Trish,, s pool in Oz. Chow.

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