I was going to write about the rights and wrongs of Waitrose giving away cups of coffee but then I read about one of their free coffees poisoning a customer. It wasn’t the fact that cleaning fluid made its way into the cup, it was how Waitrose dealt with it.

As a company, how you deal with a bad customer experience makes all the difference. Many businesses make the mistake of thinking ‘so what? it’s just one lost customer’ without realising that the ramifications go in all directions. The customer tells people she meets, statistically far more than when she has a good experience, and she never shops with you again so you lose a potential lifetime of purchases. For example, I had a bad experience with Kuoni back in the 90s, I felt their response was inadequate and neither I nor any of my family have ever bought a holiday from them since- and we’ve been on a lot of holidays.

The good response is to apologise profusely, show that you’ve looked into the problem and made sure it won’t happen again, and compensate more generously than they are expecting. So, what did this particular Waitrose do when their customer was hospitalised? They sent her an insulting £25 voucher. They soon learnt how much that free coffee was worth when the customer’s husband took to the social media.

Surely an exception to the great John Lewis tradition of serving customers exceptionally well, you might think. Except. It reminded me of an experience we had at Waitrose in Salisbury a few weeks ago. We had found the staff in their cafe particularly inattentive to the point of not listening. Because we thought this was unusual and that the store would want to make sure this didn’t happen again, my wife wrote a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ letter to the Manager by name.

We received back a hand written note from Customer Service Department Manager. This could be a good personal touch except for there being no apology, simply a terse ‘If you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me’ and a phone number. My wife was pretty annoyed. She’s taken the trouble to write, now she was expected to take even more trouble to phone. Nevertheless she did, only to find the manager in question was away.

John Lewis and Waitrose have made a name for being better at customer service. That’s one of the points of their free coffee. It says, ‘We’re not just another supermarket, we’re a place where shopping is both relaxing and fulfilling. Of course, it will take more than a little bad service to stop us shopping with them because it has to be balanced against all the many occasions the service has been exceptional. Nevertheless, the halo slipped a bit.

I think their halo has slipped a bit over the matter of free coffee, as well. It may enhance their customers’ view of Waitrose as being that bit more civilised  but it will damage local coffee shops, just as their free newspapers will damage the local newsagent. I expect Costa, Starbucks and WH Smith will survive but I can see it being a problem for smaller independents. Maybe I’m worrying unnecessarily since a satisfactory cup of coffee in a supermarket doesn’t have the same value as a good coffee in pleasant surroundings, which is I guess why so many of us pay £2.50 for something that costs a few pennies to make.

This article was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the marketing consultancy Seven Experience and former Head of Marketing and Operations at The Mayflower Theatre. You can connect with him on Waitrose customer service response Waitrose customer service[/caption]