The Hidden Cost of Customer Service

by Caroline Garnett

For many teenagers just entering the work force, including myself, a restaurant job is both a rite of passage and an eye-opening experience to the working side of the service industry and its golden rule: the customer above all, a manifesto that results in huge quantities of waste in the name of customer satisfaction. Within a week of starting my first job as a host I had internalized the value of one key symbol in customer service: a glass of iced water. In the heat of Texas summer, a cold drink is a necessity, but water is also a symbol of welcome and, most importantly, a sign of attention. A full water glass indicates a server on top of their game; an empty water glass, a scatterbrained or even lazy server. One of my duties involved “table touches” where I would visit each table with a water pitcher and make small talk with the customers while filling their practically untouched water glasses to the brim. When the customers would finally leave, their leftover water, normally at least half a large glass, is poured down the drain in the back of the kitchen.

A study from Peter Gleick, the President of the Pacific Institute, shows that 3.8 billion gallons of clean drinking water – not recycled, treated wastewater – is thrown away in restaurants every year, in addition to the 16 billion gallons of water it takes to wash these glasses. This is a ridiculous waste of fresh water when cities like Dallas, where I worked, resort to using treated wastewater given frequent water shortages.

The technical solutions to this problem are easy to enumerate and put into practice: simply teach servers to only bring and refill water glasses on request, buy smaller glasses so customers will be served less water to begin with, or put a community water pitcher in the center of the table for the party to share, a successful practice in multiple restaurants.

The harder but more sustainable solution is to change consumers’ expectations from the service industry. Based on society’s current business models about customer satisfaction above all, customers have internalized the idea that to leave merely satisfied means that they have been cheated. Under these rules, to have to ask for more water because they weren’t given extra in the first place is a sign of bad service. This idea extends beyond water to food portions. I rarely saw a customer finish a plate of the oversized pancakes at brunch, and while some asked for to-go boxes, many just left the rest of their food to be thrown out. When I would ask customers about their experience as they were leaving, the overwhelming response was about just how full they were and how huge the portions were. This was not a compliment. But I have yet to meet a manager who, despite the evidence of waste every single day, would decrease food portion sizes. In a culture that prizes the strength of the economy over the longevity of resources, restaurant managers are more willing to risk the possibility of wasting food, water, and the money it costs to buy these commodities than to risk the possibility of a customer feeling slighted.

The basic laws of supply and demand dictate that a customer’s wants drive the availability of products on the market. If a customer changes their demand, businesses will change their product or service. Therefore, the only real way to stop the unnecessary waste of clean, unrecycled water is for consumers to change their expectations. We consumers drive demand, so we need to change our expectations. We expect businesses to have an abundance of options available at our leisure, only to have what we don’t want, or are too satiated to consume, to be poured down the drain, a practice depleting the already stretched water supplies of countless cities across the US. However, without the demand from consumers, business will continue as usual, until there isn’t enough water left for constant refills.

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