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Customer Experience Gone Awry

February 28, 2020

This notice appeared in the October 14th, 2019 edition of Houstonia Magazine announcing the sudden closing of a formerly iconic restaurant in Houston.

UPDATE (NOON OCT. 14): Jessica Treadway, a member of guest services at Hillstone Restaurant Group, which operates the Houston’s brand, responded that “circumstances beyond our reasonable control prevented us from operating to our standards at Houston’s on Westheimer.” The Kirby location will remain open, and Hillstone hopes “to continue to provide our guests with the high level of quality and service they have come to expect from us.”

Those of us who know better, recognize this for what it is. Hogwash. In August of this year, I encountered something so distasteful, I vowed never to go back to Houston’s. At the front desk, there were cards prominently displayed in a nice card holder that read: DRESS CODE. On the back of the card it said this:

To enhance the experience of all our guests we ask that you respect our dress code. We suggest collared shirts for gentlemen. We consider tank tops, overly provocative attire, and flip-flops too informal for the dining experience we plan to provide. We do not allow hats to be worn in the dining room. Your comfort is our priority: however, we do not feel that overly casual attire is appropriate for dining in our restaurant.

Not long ago, there were three Houston’s here, and all were packed, all the time. You could expect an hour or more wait just about any night of the week and two hours on Friday and Saturday nights. We didn’t mind the wait either, because the food was great, the service was amazing, and the portions were very generous. We felt good about ourselves, the way we were treated and the value we received. We felt appreciated and it felt like “our restaurant”. It felt the way I feel when I walk in to my HEB on San Felipe, my Hamilton Shirt Shop, my Nordstrom in the Houston Galleria and my Sewell Mercedes dealer in West Houston.

Hubris, long ago replaced listening to the customer at Houston’s. The customer experience, which used to be second to none, was evidently replaced by the restaurant group’s standards. I have been predicting the demise of Houston’s for years, as the signs are always present well before the fall. This was just the final nail in the coffin. There is no sector under more pressure than food, sometimes known as businesses competing for share of stomach. Just selling good food won’t do it anymore. The price of admission is higher than that. I am continually amazed at the brilliance I see in exceptionally well-run companies like Wegman’s, HEB, The Capital Grille, QuikTrip, Nordstrom, Sewell Auto Group, Ritz-Carlton and a hand full of others. I am equally befuddled by the stupidity I see exhibited by organizations that ought to know better, like Safeway, Home Depot under Nardelli, Sears, Kmart and a very, very long list of once great, now defunct retailers.

The customer experience turns on a dime, and while delivering a great customer experience is complex, the concept is not. Customer service and customer experience are two very different things. Customer service is part of building your brand, which is how your customers feel about you. The customer experience is how your customers feel about themselves when they’re interacting with you. Retailers who will survive, and thrive, will deliver a consistent customer experience, using technology, physical clues and a human touch that value the customer as a lifelong asset. Losing one customer may cost hundreds or even thousands of times the amount of today’s transaction. Delivering a great customer experience requires a culture that values and trusts front line employees to make important decisions to recover from mishaps that will inevitably occur.

For your reading enjoyment, check out The Customer Experience.