How sweary chefs, innuendo-fuelled bakers and exasperated hoteliers guarantee great customer service

Great businesses are built on great customer service.

The word-of-mouth marketing benefits alone make great customer service a smart business decision. And usually good customer service doesn’t cost any more than dreadful customer service…yet amazingly there are still plenty of example of poor customer service about.

Every once in a while, a business owner or a member of their staff decides they need to do something about the level of customer service the business provides.

Maybe they’re getting lots of complaints, or maybe they just want more business and have read a magazine article highlighting the importance of top-notch customer service.

So they introduce new customer service procedures to make things better. Often that’s where the problems start…

Don’t mistake activity for progress

One of my favourite Ronald Reagan quips is “Don’t just do something, Stand there!” It always reminds me that we shouldn’t mistake activity for making improvements.

Sometimes “doing something” is worse than doing nothing at all.

Of course, there’s the illusion of progress when someone introduces a raft of new procedures…and perhaps even invests in new technology to help out.

After all, if that isn’t tangible evidence of how serious we are about improving customer service, what is?.

Sadly, in the pursuit of great customer service there are nearly always better, simpler and more cost-effective ways of making improvements than introducing new procedures. (In fact I’d argue that I’ve never seen a new formalised procedure, beyond a threshold level, adding any value from a customer’s perspective at all.)

Almost nobody thinks about what they should stop doing to improve customer service.

But if you’re serious about creating a world-class experience for your customers, your first question…to real customers, rather than your marketing department, a software vendor or a consulting firm…should be “what specifically do we do now that irritates or annoys you?”.

Then, whatever they say annoys them, stop doing that as quickly as you can unless there’s some legal reason you can’t.

.And in a sense it shouldn’t be too surprising that you can improve customer service by taking things away.

Sweary chefs, bawdy bakers and exasperated hoteliers…

Watch just about any one of those Gordon Ramsay programmes where he turns around an under-performing restaurant. Part of his turnaround plan is nearly always paring down a hugely ambitious menu with 77 different choices across 8 different styles of cuisine down to a dozen or fewer meal options.

Seemingly overnight, the business becomes easier to run, quality tends to be better, service happens as it should and customers leave at the end of the evening, well-fed and happy, intending to recommend the revamped restaurant to all their friends.

Same for The Great British Bake Off. Hugely talented bakers try to squeeze too much into the available time and end up crashing out of the competition.

A simpler approach would have resulted in a cake they could have been proud of, not a collapsing sponge with decorative icing a 4 year-old might have been ashamed to bring in for “cake day” at their primary school.

And you see it in just about any edition of my favourite reality show… “The Hotel Inspector”.

You can really sense Alex Polizzi’s intense frustration as, for the umpteenth time, she summons every last ounce of her sorely-tested patience to explain that the hotel owner’s extensive Lego collection has no place in the hotel bar…or that pet lizards shouldn’t be allowed to roam the hotel corridors during the day…or how “tasteful” Victorian prints don’t especially complement a shoe-box motel tacked onto the motorway services.

All these would-be hoteliers say the same thing… “none of our guests have ever complained about our Lego (or lizards or whatever) so we thought people liked them”.

The tragedy is, the hotel owner is usually right. I’m sure very few guests did complain about the hotel owner’s personal interests manifesting themselves somewhere in the hotel.

The owner just presumed that “no complaints” equalled “good news” and never noticed that very few guests came to stay more than once…always a good double-check that what you think is good service is seen as such by your customers.

So before you try improving customer service by adding in more things, have a really good think about what you’re already doing and see if you can remove some of the things which annoy, irritate or frustrate your customers first.

Your business will be easier to run, your running costs will be lower and your customers will be happier.

The hidden knack to great customer relationships

But there’s a hidden knack to this.

Normally people like me, Finance Directors and CFOs, are happy at the prospect of doing fewer things because they quickly work out if you fire half the call centre then the wage bill halves as well. Usually, not doing things is a popular choice for a red pen-wielding Finance Director or CFO.

However life isn’t as simple as they teach you at bookkeeping school.

Although our sweary chefs, innuendo-fuelled bakers and exasperated hoteliers do cut down the menu choices and remove hotel owners’ personal garbage from their guest rooms, that’s only to get the business to “ground zero”.

It’s what they do next that is the ultimate secret of their success.

Yes, they do fewer things. But they do them so much better than they used to.

Instead of frozen steaks of questionable provenance, Gordon Ramsay brings in fresh, grass-fed Aberdeen Angus steak…sometimes even at a higher price than the restaurant paid before (although, surprisingly perhaps, that’s not always the case).

Sometimes the prices even go up a little to reflect the higher input costs, but the value delivered to customers increases exponentially, even after any price increase, so they’re happy to pay the new, higher prices.

Out goes elaborate decorative icing on a Bake Off cake. Instead the baker concentrated on getting the taste of the icing absolutely perfect. Simple piping allied with great flavours tend to win more often than over-ambitious creations which the baker couldn’t finish properly in the time available..

And Alex Polizzi might well get rid of all the hotel’s pet lizards, but she also does a stylish refurbishment of the previously tatty bar to attract guests and locals alike. They’re happy to spend their hard-earned cash at the hotel bar now, in a way they weren’t before.

Building a reputation for great customer service is hard.

But one of the quickest ways to make a positive impact is just to cut out all the things you do now that annoys or frustrates your customers.

To really cement the relationship, you then take what’s left and dramatically improve the quality of your solution so that customers experience a massively improved service.

Do that well, and you’ll be the envy of your industry in no time at all.

And don’t just take my word for it…sweary chefs, innuendo-filled baking programmes and exasperated hoteliers find the quickest way to improve customer service is to do less, not more.

So will you.

Published by Alastair Thomson

Founder of Better Business Publishing Ltd. An experienced Chairman, CEO, CFO and Non-Executive Director for large multinationals across sectors such as advertising, manufacturing, financial services, utilities, printing, direct mail fulfilment, contact centres, professional membership bodies, education and training.

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