I love when my newsletter readers send me ideas for future issues.

Last April my neighbor Tina emailed me to share a recent experience at Panera.

On a Sunday Tina placed an order via Panera’s app as she was finishing her grocery shopping.

She arrived at Panera 5 minutes early for her pick up, giving her time to look around.

The ambiance was post-lunch crush. Tina said, “The entire store was really dirty – tables not cleaned, trash/dishes overflowing, stuff on the floor – basically making me want to hurry up and get out of there.”

Tina’s wait stretched 10 minutes beyond her pick-up time before her order popped up in the Ready column of the electronic order board.

But that was not the most disturbing part.

“While I stood waiting, I watched as multiple employees literally did nothing, they just stood there while the orders piled up.  Not once did someone even look up to ask what orders people were waiting for or apologize for the delays.”

From Aloof to Excuse

Panera sent Tina their customary “Following up on your recent Panera experience” survey. Tina took the time to tell them what she told me.

Their response?

Hi Tina,

I’m so sorry that the wait was longer than normal this past Sunday, it was a very busy day that was out of the ordinary. Unfortunately we cant plan for days like that and thank you for bearing with our staff while we got threw it.

Thank you for sharing your concerns with me. I will address them with out team. I hope to see you in the cafe soon!



[name withheld]
Panera Bread

Tina’s reaction?

“Panera did nothing with this email to make me feel better about my experience this past Sunday – in fact the email kind of was emblematic of my whole experience – it was sloppy and did not make me feel valued as a customer.

“The typos/misspellings and excuses along with ignoring other pieces of my feedback will definitely have me reconsidering going to this Panera location any time soon.”

Understaffed v. Apathetic

Even before the pandemic, hospitality brands were struggling to fulfill their staffing needs.

Hotels had already moved to by-request-only housekeeping.

Restaurant service had slowed. Savvy restaurants were staggering seatings more to avoid overwhelming kitchen staff and servers.

The pandemic spread staffing woes to many other industries.

But this situation is not a case of being understaffed. The picture Tina paints portrays idle staff while customers wait unaddressed.

Even if each member of the Panera staff had fulfilled their job duties to that moment, the collective look is a brand that doesn’t care about their customers.

Tina’s example is one in a sea of we-as-a-brand-don’t-care-how-this-looks examples I’ve seen, some with much greater consequences.

Idle Hands, Tone Deaf Ears

My friend Jill and her family experienced a traveling nightmare when flying to her nephew’s wedding in Italy.  Her Air Canada flight to Montreal had to sit 4 hours on the tarmac before they could deplane, forcing them to miss their connection.

What did the flight attendants tell them while they were waiting?

“Unfortunately, we are not the priority when they start bringing planes to the gate.”

At midnight, Jill and her family got into a rebooking line she described as snaking “longer than Pirates of the Caribbean at Disney,” with only 2 windows open. At 4 am she noticed two supervisors chatting on the sidelines and asked them to help.

They told her to be patient.

At 6 am new passengers arrived and were served first. Passengers in the rebooking line were told “Be patient. You are not our priority right now.”

Her family finally reached the rebooking window at 6:45 am, after 7 hours of waiting and too late to get them to Italy in time. They missed the wedding.

Making customers wait 4 or 7 hours and telling them they are not the priority is a jaw-dropping service fail.

Air Canada apologized in an email the next day and offered a voucher for a future flight. After that horrific experience, Jill has no intention of using it.

Appearances Matter

As I’ve written before, your brand forms in the eye of the beholder from repeated exposure.

That means every brand experience factors into your brand’s reputation.

Some experiences can weigh more than others. Some are capable of searing an image in your customer’s mind that becomes difficult, if not impossible to dislodge.

Customers are smart and their memories are long. Adverse experiences make them wary of doing business again with the offending brand.

You never want your customers wary of their next experience with your brand. That signals a relationship in jeopardy.

That uncertainly is enough to send some customers looking for alternatives.

To Jill, Air Canada will forever be the airline that made her miss her nephew’s wedding, the airline that said “you are not our priority.”

It’s likely she’ll never fly with them again.

Air Canada’s relationship with Jill is over. In one single experience, they killed it.

Identify Your Brand’s Potholes

Your brand’s success can feel tenuous when you realize a single bad experience could terminate your customer relationship.

Or maybe you are just shaking your head at Panera and Air Canada, thinking your employees would never dismiss or ignore your customers.

These examples are a wake-up call to every brand to revisit and shore up the customer experience they deliver.

In her book Conversations That Connect, Brooke Sellas coins the term “potholes” for any moment in your customer’s journey with your brand when they get stuck, frustrated, or annoyed and need help.

I love this term because we can all relate to the uncomfortable bump and annoyance of a pothole.

Eliminating potholes is an excellent use of your marketing dollars. Anything that smooths a customer’s path increases the likelihood they will purchase again and share their positive experience with friends and colleagues.

As you plan for 2023, begin by studying your customer’s experience and identifying any potholes.

Common potholes include:

  • Automated phone answering systems missing options or making it difficult to reach a human when needed;
  • Automated service errors;
  • Long phone waits or email response times;
  • Slow website loading times;
  • Delays in providing promised information or follow up;
  • Unclear communication;
  • Wrong order fulfillment;
  • Product delivery delays;
  • No response at all.

Ask your customers about their experience with your brand and listen attentively. Note where you can improve.

Fixing your brand’s potholes should be a marketing budget priority before you think about any advertising, social media spending, or conference sponsorship.

Make your brand experience smooth and enjoyable. If that’s the only thing you do in 2023, your time and money will be well spent.

Cultivate Employee Empathy

Unless you are a company of one, you rely on your employees to deliver your brand experience. They are the face of your brand when customers interact with them.

This is true for everyone from the Chief Financial Officer to the sandwich prep team to the janitor.

Fixing your brand’s potholes may require improving your employees’ experience so they can better serve your customers.

  • Treat employees as you would like them to treat your customers. Employees’ service will reflect the brand as they experience it. I wonder how Panera and Air Canada treat their employees that would inspire them to ignore customers.
  • Include customer service guidelines in every job description. Every employee should know how to respond to a customer’s inquiry, even if it is thoughtfully directing them elsewhere and following up to ensure their needs were met. Guidelines help ensure a consistent experience. “You are not a priority” are words no employee should say to a customer.
  • Recognize and reward exemplary service. Back up your guidance on the importance of attentive customer service with action. Recognition and rewards reinforce your message and motivate the performance you seek.

Not every bad experience banishes a customer forever. Tina told me she recently went back to Panera after a 6-month hiatus.

But why take the chance?

Have you had an experience that made you stay away or swear off a brand? Please reply and let me know.

P.S. Want more on marketing mishaps? Enjoy these stories:

How Nike Lost My Business in Record Time

The Free Dessert That Made Things Worse

Save Your Brand from Marketing Blunders


For Your 2023 Planning or Holiday Gift Giving

Reading Teenage Wastebrand is fun and great preparation for your 2023 planning.

It also makes a wonderful gift for the business owners in your life. Contact me if you’d like to purchase a personalized, signed copy.

Or you can buy a copy in your format of choice:


Print (hardcover or paperback, usual size or large print)

Audio book


Just for Fun

See why it takes so long to get computer help. (2 minutes, 20 seconds)

Watch Ben Stiller have an airport delay experience. (1 minute, 12 seconds)

And my favorite of the bunch, Dame Judi Dench gives a customer service lesson. (2 minutes, 41 seconds)



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