A selection of vegan food

How often do you offer genuine hospitality?

Nick Bush fills up with hospitality, but wants more

Having grown up in a hotel and then a restaurant I am, more than most people I suspect, obsessed with the hospitality industry. But a recent experience made me realise that hospitality businesses rarely offer hospitality that feels genuine – like a good evening spent having dinner at a friend’s house, say.

Come again?

My immediate reaction to a restaurant offering “vegan soul food” is “run that past me again?” – I have no objection to food not involving animal products but it’s the “soul food” bit that mystifies me. Sufficiently so that I didn’t rush to eat at the nearby Amrutha Lounge when it opened last year but when I visited last week I realised what a mistake that had been. Not only is the food delicious but the serving staff make you feel genuinely welcome with an informality that stays the right side of the “hi guys!” fake cheeriness cliché of most casual dining venue.

The feeling you get is that they want to feed you – and feed you well. If you order a selection menu, which we mainly did out of laziness, there is an “unlimited top-up” approach so that you can order more of anything that you like. In practice the food supplied was more than enough, but I couldn’t resist the waitress’s eagerness for me to have just a little bit more. I’m much the same when I get invited to dinner somewhere: I find good food very difficult to refuse!

Not the most compelling exterior even without the roadworks

So, it was this aspect that was the clincher for me – a restaurant where people genuinely want you to enjoy yourself. It’s quite surprising when you think about it – the vast majority of places I visit are transactional: you order food, it gets delivered, you eat, pay the bill and depart. If you get personable wait staff and a nice welcome/farewell that’s a bonus but it often feels like it’s tacked on to the eating experience.

Philosophy

In the case of Amrutha Lounge I think the reason the experience feels different is that it’s part of an underlying philosophy about feeding people well. For example, they have a feature called “no man goes hungry” where you can exchange labour in the restaurant for food if you can’t afford it. (It’s a comedy cliché that if you can’t pay you end up washing the dishes, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it as part of the offer.) I don’t know how many people take it up, but it doesn’t really matter, it’s a statement of intent: what comes first is the offer of food.

And this is where so many businesses get it wrong on customer experience whether in hospitality or elsewhere. Too often, CX initiatives are built on top of existing poor processes and reward systems with little to change fundamental behaviours. As a consequence, effort is wasted, and results don’t justify the investment: CX is seen as a waste and nothing to do with the core business.

Actually, I would say forget customer experience and focus on what your core business does for the customer and how you want them to feel as a result: CX initiatives should grow out of that rather than be something that’s layered on as an afterthought.

You could say that customer experience has to come from the gut, but in the case of businesses like Amrutha Lounge, that’s the start – and the destination.

This post was originally published on The Next Ten Years

To keep your fickle customers, focus on repeatable great experiences

Customer loyalty may be overrated, but achieving it is still a challenge

Residents of my little pocket of south London are lucky to have a wide choice of coffee outlets to sit and socialise or work in. When I’m working at home and need a change of scene, I often take myself off to one of them to jolt my brain, not just with caffeine, but with a different working environment.

Lately I have favoured an independent outlet with a bright airy back room and a damn fine cappuccino but my last couple of visits haven’t quite hit the spot for me. I’ve been analysing this as, whilst I am a frequent visitor to my nearest coffee house (a chain, with adequate coffee), I want to support independent local businesses as well. Without spending too much time (metaphorically) on my own psychiatrist’s couch I have concluded that something in the experience must have changed as the product – the coffee – is as good as it’s always been.

What’s going on

Part of the reason I go to my independent is that the ambience suits 30-60 minutes of pondering and writing (that’s my creative process in a nutshell – if I wanted to sound pretentious I’d call it thought leadership) even if I’m surrounded by chatting mums (it’s invariably mums on a weekday), noisy babies and background music that’s not too obtrusive. The service has usually been pleasant enough, but something has changed: the last couple of times I have been there’s been less of a buzz and the service has seemed just a little offhand.

These are all tiny changes – was I being hyper-sensitive? (It does come with the territory of being a customer experience-obsessive…) Or was I starting to become a more fickle consumer?

No, something in my gut was telling me this wasn’t the creative crucible that I had been getting used to…

Hello, lazy brain

Obviously, it’s not my gut telling me this, it’s my brain. As behavioural scientists have observed, our brains are inherently lazy and want repeatable, dependable experiences. My lazy brain got the idea pretty quickly that my local independent coffee shop could fulfil the following equation:

Great coffee + nice ambience + OK service = productive hour’s writing

So, my immediate reaction when thinking “where can I go for a break” was to choose the independent over the nearer chain.

This theme is explored in A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin’s HBR paper “Customer Loyalty is Overrated” where they challenge the accepted notion that consumers make conscious purchasing choices and therefore companies are required to come up with ever-improving, fresher propositions. Behavioural psychology research suggests the opposite: our brains are not always analytical; instead they take incomplete information and fill in the missing bits based on past experience. The more often we do this in relation to an experience the more “fluent” we become. When we make a decision that just “feels right” the processing that leads to it has been fluent.

I’ll always buy some brands because I associate them with the outcomes they deliver and don’t give the choice a second thought: in this case those brands make things easy for me by providing repeatable outcomes.

This is tough for companies where service is an integral part of the experience. A product can be manufactured, packaged and priced consistently for repeatable outcomes, but add service – typically with some form of human factor involved – and the outcome is less repeatable. Coffee shops in particular try to get around this by offering monetary incentives via loyalty cards to get you to come back. It’s not an influencer though: both my chain and my independent have equivalent loyalty schemes but that’s part of my conscious choice so not part of the repeatable experience that plays to my subconscious.

The product element in a coffee shop is easily repeatable. The equally critical ambience and service factors are less so, but they can be addressed. A market leader such as Disney puts a enormous effort into ensuring that – given the potential for massive variation – it offers an overall great experience for its resort customers, through focusing on staff (sorry, cast) selection, training and development and continuous improvement of all elements of the customers’ experience.

In my case, I may have been unlucky, and some of the factors I value were just missing on a couple of occasions. But the damage has been done: my lazy brain now has to do a lot more work to find a conscious reason to go there.

Cup half full

What bugs me about corporate attitudes to customer experience is that it’s seen as expendable and something to be cut when the going gets tough. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of making it as efficient as possible – transforming underlying processes, removing friction and augmenting the experience though new technology but too often it’s a discretionary element that can be cut according to the other demands of the business. If you were running an airline you wouldn’t knowingly send faulty planes in the sky or not provide enough fuel for the journey so why take a different attitude to service?

Good coffee in my neck of the woods is easy to come by but a consistent experience that plays to my unconscious, lazy brain is a lot harder.

This post was originally published on The Next Ten Years

It’s no joke: discourtesy hurts your business

Picture the scene. An 85-year-old woman walks into a pub on the outskirts of Chippenham, Wiltshire to check on a lunch booking she’d made to celebrate her husband’s 92nd birthday. His hearing isn’t so good these days and, knowing the pub can be noisy when busy, she asked if the party of seven could be seated at a quiet table.

“Oh, I don’t know, we may be busy, we can’t guarantee it”, said the manager.

My mother-in-law – for that’s who it was – reiterated the need for a quiet table to make sure the occasion went off successfully.

“Well, maybe this isn’t the pub for you”, said the manager.

At which point my mother-in-law cancelled the booking and re-booked at another, quieter venue.

There are two ways to interpret this:

1) This pub has a laser-like focus on its clientele and doesn’t need to pander to the whims of someone who’s not in its target market

Or

2) THIS IS AN OUTRAGEOUS WAY TO TREAT A CUSTOMER.

I subscribe to the latter point of view, not just because it’s my in-laws, but because it was frankly discourteous and, since I’ve had many fine lunches at the pub with them, I know it’s possible to cater for someone with not-particularly-special needs.

All the more disappointing as their wait staff are normally very good and the food is great.

So, here’s the lesson from this little scene:

  • Customer experience doesn’t just cover the main event (the meal), it’s the whole journey from reservation through to departure from the venue.
  • All points in the journey provide an opportunity for failure.
  • If your front-line staff can’t treat people with respect and make accommodations for their needs, they will lose you money.
  • Excluding one group of customers has a knock-on effect: none of the party of seven – most of who are younger – will be inclined to go there in future.

Courtesy costs nothing.

Discourtesy will hurt your bottom line.

Customer service basics can make all the difference (part 2)

In the first part of this two-part article I dealt with some examples of keeping the customer informed and managing their expectations. There’s a common theme emerging in both those and the following examples of basic customer service – and my experiences over the post-Christmas period emphasised this:

Communication is everything

Here’s the remaining four of my six basics…

3) Don’t hassle the customer

My in-store experience at Warren Evans was a classic example of getting the level of attention just right. We were greeted by an assistant, Michelle, who determined our needs, then showed us the range of potential beds. She then left us to get on with working out which one we liked and when we’d made our choice, took us through the transaction, including the commitment to dates.

Warren Evans is by no means the only store that can get this right – it’s something every floorwalker in a store should be trained up in and, in my experience, most stores can get it right. However, when stores move online, the ability to judge how much attention a customer needs seems to go out of the window. In part this is understandable since the customer is not visible in the same way as a physical store, but sites often over-compensate by forever pestering you to provide feedback or reminding you that you had the temerity to leave goods in your cart without completing the transaction.

Feedback and nudging customers to complete make good sense commercially but don’t always lead to customer satisfaction. Involving customers actively in the evolution of online services helps you to get these details right.

4) Pay attention to unspoken needs

My most frustrating recent experience came on my birthday at the beginning of January, where I had arranged to meet family at a central London restaurant. It’s a reasonably well-established American-themed venue and seemed just about right for a lively celebration. On arrival it appeared to be too lively as our table was close to the bar area where a singer/guitarist was providing live entertainment for the evening. I did a quick tour of the restaurant looking for a quieter table, at which point the manager spotted what I was doing and immediately moved us to a better table. So far so good, sadly there will be some negatives to come…

5) Deal brilliantly with complaints

…and indeed, the restaurant managed to get so many basics wrong that a 15-point complaint email followed. However, the initial attention to my dissatisfaction with the table was a great example of one element of dealing brilliantly with complaints and that’s dealing with them before they happen.

A further example followed when two aperitifs took 20 minutes to not arrive. On raising this – an expression of dissatisfaction, so a complaint in all but name – we were offered them gratis.

Overall, despite good food and great company there were other basic restaurant service elements that left something to be desired, so I emailed the restaurant at length. I received an email the following day from the manager we had seen who demonstrated the following good practice:

  • Acknowledged the error(s)
  • Apologised
  • Offered compensation, even though none had been requested.

In this case the compensation is four free dinners, which we’ll take up soon, if only to check that the promised improvement in service has been implemented. Sometimes I think it’s a mixed blessing having me as a customer…

6) Don’t be average

Part of the problem with the restaurant was that, whilst Ben the manager was attentive, the other service staff didn’t seem to be on the same page. Certainly, they were not responding to what should be a given at a venue like this: that my desired outcome is a great evening out, not just some reasonable food and drink.

Many retail outfits – particularly in the food and hospitality sector – are content to provide average transactions. I reflected on this when writing the first part of this piece in a nearby outlet of a coffee chain (inexplicably named after a decadent Roman emperor). I ordered my flat white and it was prepared in short order but, whilst the assistant wasn’t in any way unpleasant he wasn’t exactly personable.

I don’t expect hugs or a life-transforming experience when I’m buying a coffee, but I couldn’t help thinking an opportunity had been missed for a bit more human interaction, otherwise I might as well be buying coffee from a vending machine.

First world problems?

Dissecting one’s own experiences like this is an occupational hazard when you’re in my line of business and sometimes it can seem like I am obsessed with what might be termed ‘first world problems’ but the problem for first world businesses is that competitive advantage can be gained from getting all these things right, particularly when so many companies don’t.

Will you seize the opportunity to fix your service basics and get ahead of the competition?

 

The UK’s Wimbledon winner

I’m writing this towards the end of the fortnight where my area of SW London experiences a quantum leap in busy-ness as the streets are thronged with people heading for the Wimbledon tournament at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club. As I write, the UK has reverted to its default state of no title contenders despite Johanna Konta’s spirited efforts and Andy Murray’s struggles with injury. However, there is a British winner

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Hello and welcome

It seems only right that since my last piece was on the on the importance of saying goodbye, I should deal with the even more important area of a good welcome. Feeling like you are a valued customer from the moment you enter anyone’s premises – and that includes online premises – taps into a deep emotional need and it’s a bit of a mystery to me why organisations don’t pay more attention to it.

I experienced a brilliant welcome when I visited a National Trust property

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My week in CX #9

In  a week in which my customer experiences revolve around eating, I give some feedback, find out how much my advice is worth, eat far too much pizza and receive more communication from the mysterious Amy Ingram…

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Dog days: when brands bite

I like the occasional beer, and I like brands that position themselves as something a bit different, so it was disappointing to read of the contortions that self-styled punk brewers Brewdog went through when their solicitors asked Birmingham pub The Wolf to change its original name – The Lone Wolf – as it conflicted with the brewer’s new spirits brand of the same name.

Brewdog’s actions sit uncomfortably

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My week in CX #2

Unhappy feet

It’s been a good week for my own experiences as a customer covering everything from pubs to running, although not at the same time. Let’s start with the running…

Runner’s needs met?

Lately I’ve been dogged by a pain in my heel, most noticeable when running and I think I can attribute it to some otherwise super-comfortable running shoes I bought from Runnersneed last year. A brief internet search just now – which I normally avoid because of the risk of early-onset hypochondria – reveals

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Service Smackdown 6: Casual dining, casual service?

It’s an occupational hazard of this line of work that I feel obliged to fill in online feedback forms whenever the opportunity is presented. Recently I’ve been invited to do so by two outlets operated by Tragus Group – whose website proclaims they are one of the UK’s largest casual dining groups and their brands include high street favourites Strada, Bella Italia and Café Rouge. As they use the same survey engine it seems a good opportunity to promote a Service Smackdown bout between two evenly-matched  opponents: in the red corner, armed with several bottles of lethal brew, the Belgian Bruiser that is Belgo; in the blue corner, with an audience of adoring fans across the country, I give you Strada! Seconds out…

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