I was forwarded a post from Seth Godin's blog this morning about his recent visit to a new restaurant.  He reflected on the fact that, despite the relative vacancy of the dining room, his party was seated at the worst table available.  The "best" tables were apparently reserved for regular customers.

I worked in retail for a short time, and our largest customers (quite often on their fourth or fifth purchase visit) were always serviced by our store manager.  As the "new guy," I was resigned to help the passers-by and the "oh, I'm just looking" crowd.  It's not that I'm a bad salesman; my manager was authorized to make special deals and provide value-added discounts and services to our "regulars."  To follow Seth's analogy, he was the best table and I was the cramped one in the corner by the kitchen.

Did our regular customers deserve the special attention?  For a long time, I thought they might ... until one of my "just lookings" turned out to be a multi-millionaire shopping for jewelry to give away at his daughter's wedding.  It was our largest sale of the quarter, and it was passed on to me because he walked into the store in torn blue-jeans and a sweat-stained t-shirt.  New customer, doesn't look like he can afford much, send the new guy.  My manager and I had quite the interesting conversation after that sale.

In reality, there can be no such thing as a "bad table."  Your regular clients are your friends, but new clients can be just as good for your social circle as they can be for your bottom line.  For example, had the restaurant known it was Seth Godin who walked in (he's a very well-known blogger in the marketing world!) they probably would have paid more attention to him.  Did he deserve better service?  Not necessarily, but his experience should have been on-par with everyone else's.

I was speaking with a restaurant owner in Seattle the other day who told me a similar story.  It was a busy Saturday night, so he was helping seat patrons to give his staff a slight reprieve from the weekend rush.  As he walked into the waiting area to find the next party, he noticed Bill Gates standing in the corner with a pager (the kind that beep when your table's ready).  On one hand, this is a great example of how everyone should be treated to equal service.  On the other hand, he had just bumped three "regular" customers to the top of the wait list as a thank you for their consistent patronage.  He definitely learned a lesson that night.

What is your "best table?"  How about your "worst" one?  What steps can you take to bring them to equal standing with your customers?