Johnson's World: A Deli-cate Situation

Quality, service, price: choose any two. It’s an old saw that illustrates the dynamic tension between different aspects of customer demands. Many (myself included) believe it to be deceptive when taken as an axiom. Fact is that all three qualities are just the ante required to sit down at the business table.

Even defining these three properties can be deceptively complex. Price is the most straightforward of the three. Quality is generally defined by the nature of the product or activity being provided. As for service, well, it can mean just about anything.


New Kid on the Block

One of the worst mistakes any professional can make is to define service differently than his client.

I’ll not bore you with dry case histories from the business-to-business world. Rather, I’ll illustrate my point with something that is nearly universally consumed, namely, sandwiches, or as my daughter would say, sammiches.

One day, returning from an appointment too late to make it to a weekly lunch meeting, I passed a new deli. I like to support local businesses and I hadn’t packed a lunch, so I thought I’d give it chance.

Parking was abysmal. The deli had none of its own in a location where virtually all customers arrive by car. Parking wasn’t allowed on my side of the street, and turning around required that I cross railroad tracks and go through a traffic light.

I entered, waited in line for a few minutes, and was greeted pleasantly if not enthusiastically. I ordered an Italian sub to go, which is my standard for evaluating deli fare. I paid and was given a number to be called out when my sammich was ready.

The place didn’t seem very busy even though it was lunchtime. It was a good thing I wasn’t in any particular hurry, because the staff certainly wasn’t. I joined other customers milling about, and 25 minutes later I had my sandwich.

Most workers have either an hour or a half-hour for lunch. Since travel time must be included, even an hour would not be enough time for lunch at this place. My time is my own, but I value time highly. The sandwich itself was neither bad nor great, the price neither high nor low. Even though this place is nearby, I won’t be returning.


Meanwhile, in Another Part of Town…

Last Sunday I stopped at Casey’s Market. A deli and meat market open on Sunday in an old downtown neighborhood. Yes, and busy at that. Yet, despite the pandemonium, I received prompt and friendly service. I had my Italian sub in hand in 10 minutes. My sammich was superb, very fresh, and piled high with meats and cheeses.

I’ll recommend Casey’s to friends, and I’ll make a point to return whenever I’m in the neighborhood.


Just Desserts

Here are a few observations.

In both cases, price was not an issue. Frankly, I don’t remember what my sandwiches cost, which means the price was not so high as to scare me away and not so low as to overcome other shortcomings. Product quality was passable in the first case and top drawer in the latter instance. Service was the differentiating factor, and I, the client, defined service by reasonable turnaround with a smattering of friendliness thrown in.

In the first case, the inconvenient location could have been overcome with quick service, but instead there was no hustle at all.

In the last case, the workers were clearly hopping to get me my sandwich, and I was fed quickly, even though Casey’s was easily 10 times busier than the competition.

I’m not unreasonable. If fast was all I wanted, I’d sacrifice quality and go to a chain like Subway. In fact, I didn’t have to sacrifice quality to get fast service. I didn’t have to sacrifice anything. When I find a vendor who provides everything I need, they have a made me into a customer for life.

You may not be selling sandwiches, but your customers are hoping for price, quality, and service in whatever you provide for them.

Which delicatessen are you?


Steve Johnson is president of Copresco in Carol Stream, IL; a pioneer in digital printing technology and print on demand. Contact him at, or send direct feedback about this column via