By Chris Gilmour

Who would have thought there would be a lesson in crisis management to be learned from a row about a bill in a small, independent café?

Step forward the hero of Henry’s Bistro Cafe in Wallington, Surrey. Someone brave enough to tell his customers they were wrong.

This groundbreaker took a stand after a group of 17 women took over the café for three hours and spent just £55 between them – about a £1 a head an hour.

They were willing to risk the fury of the mob because not to do so would allow others to continue to harm their business. This was someone who, even though they were spitting feathers, made a calm and rational case … and that sits right at the heart of good crisis management practice.

We live three miles away, and I’m so impressed by the owner’s attitude and customer service that I plan to nip in for a brew this weekend.

After three hours and with 55 quid in the till, they’d have been within their rights to turf the old ladies out with a flea in their ear.

Instead, they made a polite case by letter, pointing out the group – who had arranged to meet there – spent “less than the price of a cup of tea every hour”.

Financial loss

They added: “You assured us that the spending from the group would be of an amount making yours/our understanding to be a beneficial one. The visit left us with a financial loss that is neither sustainable nor how a business/restaurant works.

“£55 divided by 17 is approximately £3.24 per head, which, divided by three hours, is approximately £1.07 per head gross.”

In that situation, the cafe owner is 100 per cent right to tear into those customers. They did it courteously and privately – it was the group’s leader who posted it on a local Facebook page, leading to wide press coverage.

Anyone offended by the café owner’s response is exactly the kind of customer he doesn’t want.

They stood up and defended their business in a way small firms can but larger companies can’t or won’t because they are worried about causing offence, even when they know they are in the right.

The café owner was driven by the fact small operators literally cannot afford to have their premises and services monopolised by people who aren’t putting the money in. They can’t absorb losses the way chains do.

The minimum wage for over-25s is £7.83. Even with just two employees in the café for those three hours, that’s £47 gone straight away. Power bills, ingredients, insurance, rent and rates would wipe out the rest … and more.

Kick up a fuss

People believe the saying “the customer’s always right”. But many of us know we’re taking advantage of that ethos when we kick up a fuss over a little thing, knowing the business will apologise or give us something in return or reduce our bill.

That attitude needs to change. Why should businesses just suck it up? Customers should realise it’s a two way street. If you want good customer service, be a good customer – do little things like saying please and thank you and actually spending money.

Judging by the reaction to the Henry’s Bistro Cafe hero on social media and in the comments sections on online articles, most people are in agreement with the owner.

OK, a few people are saying it’s bad customer service. But they’re wrong – and they're the type of customers who would put a small business out of business.

Business is not a charity. People go into business to provide an amenity and make a profit from it. Good customer service helps them do this.

Companies can be castigated for standing up for themselves. Social media has fed this with so many people eager to take offence. But on this occasion, the public have got behind the little guys in the aprons.

The thing to take away from this is the need to judge each case on its own merits, whether in customer service or crisis management – they’re almost the same thing, after all.

Be courteous and polite when handling a complaint. But judge whether backing down will do more harm than good to your business.

For help and advice call our crisis management experts now on 0800 612 9890.