Sunday, 9 March 2008


If you follow my Blog you will know that I do make an effort to only Blog on positive subjects (Alpha Male and Dragons' Den related subjects excepted of course :-), but occasionally there comes a customer experience so hideously dire that I feel moved to report it to you.

And that occasion came today in the form of my third son's 5th birthday party which (at his insistence) I chose to hold at the Easy Tigers Play Centre in Chesterfield. [This is one of those industrial units with a huge climbing and soft play zone where you can let the kids run loose for an hour or so while parents can sit and have a cup of coffee.]

Said party was booked to start at 10.30am so we decided to arrive nice and early at 10am to ensure we had time to set up before Eddie's friends arrived. Mistake #1.

'I'm sorry madam, your party is booked for 10.30, your table is not set up yet, you'll have to wait until you can go in.'

It is a Sunday morning, the centre has only just opened and we can see there are lots of free tables inside, plus other kids are merrily arriving and going inside, but we (my husband and I, plus our 5 kids - including baby in carry seat) are left in the draughty foyer to wait for half an hour.

I query the decision only to be told 'It's policy'.

So I ask to see the manager.

A black and flame haired lady materialises (who can't be much older than 25) to tell me once again 'It's policy' but this time with a 'darling' added for good measure.

In my most persuasive and friendly tones I say 'Look, we're here parked in the foyer with 5 kids in tow including a baby; you're empty in there, SUUUUUUUUURELY we can just go in and get a cup of coffee while we wait?????' Eventually she relents and (after another 10 minutes or so mind) we are finally shown to our table.

Kids then arrive and play, but unexpectedly we have about 10 mums who decide to stay and wait - not a problem of course and they all take a table for a coffee and a natter.

An hour later the play session ends and the kids go to their party zone - a 'cage' with tables for their lunch. This is when the fun and games really commence.

I have ordered a 'platter' of food for the adults and ask where it is so that the mums can eat while the children tuck into their nuggets and chips.

'Sorry, we can't serve the adults food in the party area, they'll all have to sit at a table outside.'

'Why is that?????' I ask.

'Company Policy' I am once again told.

So, all the mums reluctantly leave their little ones and move back into the seating area; 5 minutes later a tiny plate with literally 2 rounds of sandwiches arrives; 4 ham triangles and 4 tuna ones, plus a small bowl of crushed up tortilla chips and salsa dip.

OK, my fault for not ordering enough, so to correct the situation I ask where Eddie's birthday cake has been taken so I can cut up some slices of cake for the mums to eat. It is plenty big enough for everyone.

'Sorry, we can't cut up the cake in the party area, we don't allow knives near the children. It's company policy.'

'OK' I say 'Can someone cut up the cake in the kitchen?'

'No, the cake has to be cut in the play area, it's company policy.'

'OK, let me take the cake and the knife I brought along out to my car so I can cut it up there and bring it back in for the mums.'

'Sorry, we don't allow any food to be eaten on the premises which has not been purchased here. Company policy.'

'But I've got 10 mums out there with a tiny plate of 8 sandwiches and I'd really like to be able to give them a slice of cake while they wait!' I protest.

'Well you should have ordered more food then.'

GRRRRRRRR !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

At this point, I express my exasperation with their 'company policies' which seem to have the business so tied up in red tape it is impossible for the party to be an enjoyable and stress free event. After all, the Easy Tigers website does state that the founders mission was that 'We wanted Parents to take it "easy" whilst their "tigers" were having fun.'

I ask to speak to the centre owner.

'They own the business but they're not often here' I'm told.

'Well that's clear!' I say - if they were around a bit more often they might know just how their centre is being run.

So I ask for the owners' names, so I can write to them about my customer 'experience'.

'We're not allowed to give you the owners names' I'm told. 'Company policy.'


Flame haired manageress then materialises once again to say 'Is there a problem darling?'

'Well, yes actually there is' I tell her, and recount all the events of the day and my frustration at how stressful the entire process has been. I am conscious that, by this point, I have turned into the 'Customer from Hell' - someone to be viewed with much amusement by all concerned. After all, they're all low paid workers doing part-time jobs and it isn't their business to worry about is it?

'There's no need to write to the owners' I am told, 'we have a feedback form here for you to fill in if you like.'

'Somehow I don't think the boxes on your form are big enough for what I want to write' I tell her, and disappear off to join the mums.

Party then draws to a close, and I ask if the coat racks on wheels can come to us at the mum's table so everyone can collect their party bags before leaving.

'Sorry they have to go to your party table' I am told, meaning everyone has to once again relocate before departing. By this point I am too stressed to argue.

Well, the main thing I guess is that the kids all had a good time, but I have to say as an adult I don't think my stress levels could have been any higher than at the point when I departed that building. So much for an 'easy' experience.

Oh well, the kids are 12, 9, 5, 2 and 5months - so I figure that is only another 60 or so birthday parties to endure before they have all got to the age where they don't want them any more... *sigh*

I don't suppose the owners of Easy Tigers will care much about this post or my complaint either - it's a great little business with hundreds of mums and kids crammed into every weekend session all overseen by what are clearly low cost staff none of whom seem to be old enough to have kids of their own. And I'm sure they generate more than enough business not to worry about losing mine.

It just really frustrates me - as an entrepreneur and a business advisor - to encounter businesses which are so tied up in 'company policy', it results in them actually being really badly run.


Alison said...

Gah rachel - a huge thanks for this post. It's refreshing to know that other people experience this. I've had similar experiences at other play centres - they are run by a kind of military precision and rules which do not allow for any flexibility to meet the needs of the customers. And parents put up with it becuase it's a child's birthday and you don't want to make a fuss. Do send the letter (on behalf of parents everywhere who've been held to ransom like this!) and let us know if you get a reply!

Anonymous said...

I'd definitely send them a letter. It's possible as you said that the owners are unaware of how their business is being run

I find "it's company policy" is a complete cop-out for "i can't be bothered"

John said...

I'd have to agree with parkesy, it's far too often used as a cop out when the staff just can't be bothered.

Fortunately our local soft play centre is friendly.

philipj said...

Off-Topic on the Tigers post... but couldn't resist it... ;-)

came across this on Google the other day; forgive me if you've seen it before: forgive me rachel, not wanting to open old wounds - i thought about deleting your "opinion", but that would have just been wrong... anyway, take it with the humour it was contrived in...

Peter Jones: "Well, yes, they're very tasty. I'd certainly buy a
can...but the problem is that all you've really done is taken the
haricot bean, baked it, covered it in a tomato based sauce and stuck
it in a can. What's to stop anyone else just stealing this idea and
producing their own version of your product? Besides, you seem to
have spilled some of the sauce down your shirt. Couldn't you have
made more of an effort? No, I'm sorry Mr Heinz, but I'm out!"

Doug Richards: "You will never amount to anything. This isn't even a business. I will not be investing."

Theo Pap..paphi...the Greek: "I own some businesses that you might
actually have heard of, you know. I mean, who's every heard of
"Library House" or "Bannatynes"? And the least said about "Red Letter Days" the better. Oh, I won't be investing any money by the way."

Duncan Bannatyne: "I might be interested in investing. I'll tell you what, Jimmy: I'll give you £500 for 99.99998% of the company. Oh, and your first born child."

Rachel Elnaugh: "Well, I quite like the idea, and the beans taste
lovely, but I'm having a bit of a cash flow problem at the moment.
By the way, you won't actually be wanting us to pay for the beans
we've eaten, will you...?"

Evan Davis: "Next up: what will the Dragons make of Mr Henry Ford and his 'horseless carriage'...."

Rachel Elnaugh said...

Hi Philip

Very funny!

I remember saying to the producer when we were filming series 1"Wouldn't it be great if we could do a spoof for Comic Relief with really famous people coming into the Den - like Branson and him being told by Peter Jones 'I can't believe you've come in front of us dressed like this' and Doug saying 'Virgin, what a terrible name for a business', or Anita Roddick (when she was alive of course) and me saying 'The market is heaving with aromatherapy products, what makes you think yours are any different'" !!!!!

Would have been great fun!


julesbrad said...

Is this 'Easy Tigers' business a franchise ? Just sounds like the owners have been given a manual of how the business should be run and then taken on 'low-cost' employees who have been told how to work in the business (without deviation).
I seem to remember you were involved with something like a franchise advisory service - could you use this as an example of how franchisors should not insist on rigidly sticking with the manual but should encourage feedback to the head office

Rachel Elnaugh said...

No it is not a franchise although there are similar soft play businesses which are franchised...

So yes it could easily be franchised and the owners would make a lot of money doing so, but as ever with franhcising it is key to get the core business right first.

If I were advising this business I would do a lot of work with them and their team regarding the brand values, identity and experience.

A brand is much more than a logo... It is the customer perception (and emotion) at every touchpoint in the experience.

There is a huge opportunity here for this business to really WOW mums and their kids.

Stephen Ryan said...

Research will show that many of these kinds of activities (including indoor BMX parks) are under constant attack by idiot parents that want on one hand to not accept responsibility and on the other hand - are ready to sue as soon as little Timmy cuts his hand. I don't believe that this problem has anything other to do than the owners fear of not getting sued. Whatever their intentions were when they started the business.

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed this post - please don't think I take any pleasure in your misery, but it is strangely comforting that celebrities experience these kind of frustrations with ridiculous company policies too! Just recently I had to stay at home all day to receive a recorded delivery from Dell, when they sent me a tiny little screw for my laptop that must have been worth less than a penny. I asked them to just stick it in an envelope and send it normally so I wouldn't have to stay home just to sign for it. They refused. Company policy, I was told. So I think your post implies a great point, that some companies need to be a lot more flexible to satisfy their customers.

I also loved your suggestion about the spoof for Comic Relief. I presume you have seen the Ricky Gervais spoof that was done recently? Very funny, though would have worked even better with your idea of using businessmen like Branson.


Sceptique said...

I think I might have a clue what's happening in this business. I used to work for one just like that, drawing into it by the good intentions of the business owners that very quickly turned into a steady diet of micromanagement and bullying. The owners might not be there to calm a distressed customer, but they never miss an opportunity to coventrize the stuff and line managers for anything that's not to their liking. So what do the emloyees do? They retaliate by methodically sticking to the nonsensical rules that have been forsed upon them, knowing perfectly what kind of impact they will have on customer service. A perfect strike - just do as you're told and the business will sure crumble, while your own neck is relatively safe.

It was my first shock of seeing the insides of a small business after years in multinationals to realize the extend to which many small business owners lack people management skills that are drilled into any corporate manager throughout their career through trainings, 360 feedbacks etc. I once read an argument to which I fully subscribe, that in a successful business it's employees, not customers, who come first, and the outstanding customer service simply ensues from treating employees fairly, with dignity and respect.

Rachel Elnaugh said...

Just to let you know, I sent a print out of my Blogpost to the owners at their home address inviting them to comment but so far have received no reply - either by comment on the Blog or any letter in response back to me.

I guess with businesses like this they have a finite capacity and don't really care if they piss a few people off.

Lyra said...

It has to be said that just reading your experience made me feel quite stressed out (and I'd just finished 30 minutes meditation). I do however seek the positive in all I see and hear and this factual event highlights that a terribly organised business can thrive. This has got to put renewed energy to plans for those people that are passionate not just to make money but to leave a pleasant taste in their customers mouths..... they'll learn!