Not long ago, M.N., a reader in Massachusetts, was waiting to order a sandwich at the deli counter at a small gourmet food store during lunchtime. Ahead of him was a woman waiting for the sandwich she had ordered. The deli man was taking longer than typical and the woman's sandwich order seemed to be quite involved.
A line slowly built behind the woman who had ordered the sandwich. When the deli man finished preparing her order, he wrapped it up carefully in white paper on which he wrote the price so the cashier at the front of the store could ring it up.
The woman thanked the deli man. Then she looked at the price he'd written, looked back up at him, and asked if he had made a mistake.
"No," he said. "You ordered the Catherine the Great. It's $130."
M.N. took a look up at the sandwich board and saw that among the ingredients in the Catherine the Great were Sevruga caviar and crÃ¨me fraiche. The price seemed clearly marked on the board.
"I would never order a sandwich for $130," the woman said. "You should make the price clearer so people can see it better."
M.N. thought the price was quite clear.
Now, there was a line at least five deep of customers waiting to place their orders. The deli man asked the woman if she would still like the sandwich. She said no and then the deli man asked if she would like something else. She placed a new order.
M.N. wondered if the deli man had done the right thing by not putting up more of a fuss. He also wondered, given that he and others had been waiting on line while the woman's refused sandwich was being prepared, if it was right for them now to have to wait longer while the deli man built a new sandwich for her.
The right thing would have been for the deli man to have confirmed the price of the sandwich when it was originally ordered and for the woman to take greater care in reading the price board. Now that the woman claimed that she hadn't been aware of the price, it may have been her mistake, but the deli man did the right thing by not insisting that she pay for a sandwich she now claimed she never would have ordered had the $130 price tag been clearer.
Since the sandwich was taking so long to build and a line was forming, the right thing would have been for the deli man to call another clerk at the store to help him fulfill other customers' orders. While he shouldn't have insisted that the woman return to the back of the line to place a new order, rather than make the other customers wait while he built her a new sandwich, the right thing is for him to serve her while he asks for another clerk to come to deli counter to help others.
The store may have ended up eating the cost of a pricey sandwich, but the deli could have assured all customers received good service by calling another clerk to take orders, and the deli counter would have built good customer relations for the long term.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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