3 Customer Service Lessons from the Food Industry

Excellent customer service is a byproduct of excellent leadership, and no one knows that more than those in the restaurant industry.
July 24, 2013

All small-business owners—especially in the food service industry—will tell you that their customers have changed in the last five years. If true, then doesn’t it logically follow that the meaning of customer service has also changed in the last five years? So how do we effectively redefine the meaning of service in this digitally driven, faster-harder-smarter-more world we now live and work in?  

To many restaurant owners, service is the primary asset of their brand, a business’s invisible product. They believe that good service makes a meal taste even better. To other food service operators, service is no longer the main priority—quality, value, speed and accuracy are the most important parts of the transaction. Service is nice, but not a necessary asset.

The truth is that service is not really a transactional act, and therefore it can’t be given. Service is a byproduct of consistently executing the other key processes that make a business successful—like hiring right, training well, suggestive selling and practicing servant leadership.

Hospitality or Customer Service?

Most restaurant owners and their customer-facing team members confuse service with hospitality, but they’re different: Service fulfills a need, but hospitality fulfills people. You can get service from an ATM or a vending machine, but you can’t get hospitality. Hospitality is the key deliverable that distinguishes great food service operations from average retail ones.

For instance, if you buy a vacuum cleaner at a store—no matter how hard you looked for someone to help you, or how you were treated by the employees—you still have a vacuum cleaner when you get home. So even if there was no discernible service accompanying the purchase, you still have a tangible something after the transaction.

But when you patronize a restaurant, what do you have after you eat? Only memories. While menu, value, décor and cleanliness all play a part, it’s service and hospitality that makes that memory positive and drives customer loyalty and repeat business.

The Core of Great Customer Service

So what are the key drivers of customer satisfaction? Here are the three basics that every industry, not just the food industry, should follow.
1. Focus on ROC, not ROI
Repeat business is the linchpin of profitability in any successful business. Everyone is familiar with ROI, but a lesser-known and more critical metric is ROC—Return of Customer. “Will you come back?” and “Would you tell your friends to try us?” are the two most important questions relative to the customer experience. If the answer is yes to both, you’ve delivered on expectations and achieved ROC. If not, you haven’t. It’s that simple.

2. Hire Great People
Repeat business will always be dependent on the weakest people you allow on your teams. Make your customers' experience consistently exceptional by hiring and developing great people. When you hire great people—despite the cost, despite the effort, despite the commitment—great things always happen. Compete first for talent, then customers.

3. Consistency Is Key
Know what customers hate about patronizing your business? Inconsistency in quality, service, speed and accuracy. So when customer service problems reoccur in your business—before you blame your people—evaluate the likelihood of a short-circuit in a system or process. Bad service issues routinely arise when you hurry-hire the wrong people, cleanliness isn't a priority, an understaffed or undertrained team messes up orders, or inefficient scheduling causes you to be short a server at peak hours. This makes customer-facing team members stressed, swamped and snippy, so they smile, serve and ultimately sell less.

Habitually consistent good service is the result of systems that:

  1. Foster a caring culture
  2. Make positivity and fun part of the core business practices
  3. Educate and encourage teams daily to be better than they were yesterday

Don’t forget that excellent service begins with leadership, the notion that “my customer is anyone who isn’t me.” The fact is that the way you treat your team members determines how they’ll treat your customers. Model the way, every day. Apply constant, gentle pressure every day to improve.

Restaurant operators are stewards of special moments in customers' lives. The food service industry’s shared goal of giving care and sustenance to strangers and regulars alike as part of our business model is what sets us apart from retail and manufacturers. Service is our invisible product.

Read more articles on customer service.

OPEN cardmember Jim Sullivan is the CEO of Sullivision.com, a company that produces service and leadership training products and programs for the Top 200 foodservice and retail brands. He’s the author of Fundamentals: 9 Ways to Be Brilliant at the New Basics of Business. His email is jim@sullivision.com.

Photo: Thinkstock