If Jack Nicholson Were Your Customer


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I heard the late, great Fred Newell once talk about a Jack Nicholson exchange with a waitress in the movie Five Easy Pieces that illustrated how rules or company policy can generate conflict with customers instead of giving them what they want.

Here’s the dialogue from the scene:

Jack Nicholson: I’d like a plain omelette, no potatoes – tomatoes instead – a cup of coffee, and some toast.
Waitress: (Points to wording on menu) No Substitutions.

Jack Nicholson: (Still polite. Softly spoken.) What…you mean you don’t have any tomatoes?
Waitress: (Irritated) Only what’s on the menu. You can have a Number 2: A plain omelette. Comes with cottage fries and rolls.

Jack Nicholson: (Still polite) I know what it comes with. But, it’s not what I want.
Waitress: I’ll come back when you’ve made up your mind.

Jack Nicholson: (Still polite…but determined) Just a minute: I HAVE made up my mind. I’d like a plain omelette with no potatoes on the plate, a cup of coffee and a side order of wheat toast.
Waitress: I’m sorry, we don’t have any side orders of toast. You can have a roll.

Jack Nicholson: (Turns full attention to waitress. Still speaks quietly.) What do you mean, you don’t make side orders of toast? You make sandwiches don’t you?
Waitress: (Hand on hip) Would you like to talk to the manager?

Jack Nicholson: (Sighs) You’ve got bread? And a toaster of some kind?
Waitress: (Exasperated. BOTH hands on hips now. Voice raised) I don’t make the rules!

Jack Nicholson: (Still calm. Talks slow) OK…I’ll make it as easy for you as I can. I’d like an omelette. Plain. And a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast. No mayonnaise. No butter. No lettuce. And a cup of coffee.
Waitress: (Writes down. Repeats back) A Number 2. And a chicken salad sandwich…Hold the butter, the lettuce and the mayonnaise.

Jack Nicholson: (Smiles) …and a cup of coffee…
Waitress: (Raises one eyebrow. Happy now the customer has kow-towed) Anything else?
Jack Nicholson: Yes. Now all you have to do is hold the chicken. Bring me the toast. Bring me a check for a chicken salad sandwich. And then you haven’t broken any rules.

(Diner scene from the movie Five Easy Pieces.)

And the point is:
Your business used to be a monologue in which you delivered a standard product or service. The customer had very little say. Now your business is a dialogue in which the customer says exactly what they want from you. The difference is that a dialogue recognizes the power of the other person. Are you listening? If you fail to acknowledge their power, they’ll flash their teeth at you. Don’t mistake it for a smile…
Phil Dourado

Phil Dourado
Author, Speaker, Independent Consultant
Founding editor of Customer Service Management Journal in the United States, and of its companion title, Customer Service Management Journal (now rebranded as Customer Management Magazine) in the United Kingdom. He is the author of The 6 Second Leader (Capstone, John Wiley & Sons, 27). www.PhilDourado.com


  1. Phil…. that is one great movie. I ?????????????????? MBA classes and it always generates good discussion. My?????????????? is ?????Nicholson is firm, polite but there is an undercurrent of extreme violence. Not great illustrations ??????????????h??????! Another `educational` movie i?????????Woman ???????? Julia Roberts opposite Richard Gere. Remember that scene when she tries shopping in an upscale Hollywood store and is snubbed but returns ??????????the sweetest ?????????Francis Buttle

  2. Hey Francis.

    I couldn’t agree more. The one big drawback in using that clip as an illustration of customer power is the underlying aggression behind the Jack Nicholson character’s politeness. When I saw a version of that clip that Fred Newell used, he had edited out the outburst of violence at the end and the anti-social comment from Nicholson’s friend in the car right at the end.

    One thing, I guess, that it does illustrate as a metaphor (and occasionally, unfortunately, the reality of customer aggression against frontline employees) is the occasional reality of customer power – the increasing customer sense of ‘This is my right and you aren’t delivering on it’ and the high emotions that receiving poor service tend to generate in customers as a result. I’ll go search for that Pretty Woman clip: thanks for the tip. People do learn from these ‘star-laced’ clips as celebrity has a kind of power of attention that helps make the lesson memorable, doesn’t it.

    As an aside, I remember Debbi Fields, the cookie-store entrepreneur, explaining how she says to her front-line employees “When a customer walks in, pretend it’s Julia Roberts that has just walked into the store”, to try and harness that special attention people pay to celebrities, and use it to treat customers as VIPs.

    I think it says something interesting about what the cult of celebrity is at the moment – the projection of self onto celebs, whom people identify with (following their private lives in the tabloids etc. as a proxy for the need to feel individual and special themselves in a mass culture where people can feel insignificant as individuals).

    If we can harness that phenomenon by getting bosses to treat their employees as celebs. and employees to treat their customers as celebs. (as per the Harvard Value Chain/Service Profit Chain) that’s a powerful tool for upgrading the customer (and employee) experience. All the best.

    Phil Dourado


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