Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Customer Service and Brand Promise

I recently experienced a different kind of customer service.  This was at a popular Italian restaurant called Zachary's Chicago Pizza in Berkeley, CA.  The place is known for its ‘Chicago-style deep dish pizza’.  It was not a big restaurant; just one big hall with a parapet wall running all along the side, leaving a narrow lane for customers to reach the cashier’s counter in the far corner.  The same counter serves as the take-out and payment point.

We were asked to wait some 20 minutes.  There were others in line and we fell in line too.  There was no waiting room as such and the waiting customers just hung around in the narrow lane, squeezing themselves against the wall every time someone had to pass by.  Pretty inconvenient, if you ask me.  But the customers did not seem to mind – and importantly, nobody walked away.  They just hung around or stepped outside if they wanted a smoke.

Soon a waiter turned up and introduced himself (“Hi! I’m Joe, I will be your waiter today.”)  He then apologized for the delay and told us that the pizzas normally take 20 minutes to cook and that if we did not mind, we could place our order right away.  We agreed (again like everyone else!) and he promptly handed us a menu each, saying we could order drinks mean time.  We did that too.  The drinks came in a few minutes and, in what seemed to be reasonable time, the waiter appeared and informed us that our table was now ready.  Of course, our order arrived almost as soon as we sat down.  The food was good and we had a good time. 

Compare this with the more typical scenario.  You arrive early or find a long line.  Waiter greets and tells you it will take 20 minutes and asks you to be seated.  There normally is a small sitting place reserved for such situations.  You sit down.  Perhaps the waiter gives you a menu to help you occupy yourself, perhaps not.  You wait for 20 minutes making a call or twiddling your thumbs.  Your turn comes… and so on.
Service Rating

You will agree, Zachary’s did a couple of things differently:
•    Was not too concerned about the inconvenience to waiting customers
•    Focused on optimizing customers’ time by taking their order right there
•    Improved his own turnover by reducing customers’ time at the table – by eliminating time taken to settle down and selecting from the menu
•    Increased working space by eliminating the unproductive ‘waiting area’; instead adding to capacity by substituting it with dinner tables.

Certainly not what most customer service experts and consultants would advise.  So what’s the secret?

To my mind, it really boils down to brand perception.  I think, as Steve Jobs showed us so often, if the brand perception is right, customers don’t seem to mind inconvenience.  In fact, they are willing to go through a lot of it!

Of course, building that kind of brand is not easy!  It needs excellence in an area of the customer experience that matters even more to the customer.  What Jobs and Zachary are telling us from very different industries is that if you have a deep understanding of customers’ real needs (especially unexpressed, or even unknown) and are able to deliver on those needs significantly better than competition, customer’s do not mind inconvenience.

Wait a minute… I suspect it’s even worse.  What Jobs has done is to make the ‘inconvenience’ part of the overall experience.  The exasperation of the typical wait has been converted to the excitement of waiting for that ‘cool gadget’; so it’s cool to sleep on the street to be among the first to own an iPad2!

While not with as much pizzazz (sic), Zachary too achieved similar results.  It make’s no bones about the possible wait.  Here’s a prominent notice it puts up on its website:

There are some preconditions to be able to pull this off, though…
1.    You need to make sure you deliver on the core promise extremely well,
2.    You need to consciously build the brand and make the ‘inconvenience’ a part of the excitement of owning the brand,
3.    The ‘inconvenience’ needs to be carefully managed.  The customer should perceive it as a natural consequence of the popularity of the brand.

 Of course, to make real sense the ‘inconvenience’ should also yield some critical benefit to the business, whether in terms of costs or additional revenue. 

How best, and to what extent, you can leverage the brand to inconvenience the customer and how you benefit from it is the tricky part.  You are the lucky one in a million, if you are able to achieve it intuitively.  For the rest of us who have to look for a tool, I would recommend beginning by mapping the customer experience end to end and then brainstorm on each component to identify areas for delighting and areas for ‘inconveniencing’.

Brand Promise
What would be some inconveniences that could be engineered into some other products and services?

1.    A consultant who is so busy, he is not available for weeks or months, but his advice is so valuable, customers are happy to put up with it.  Think Ram Charan
2.    Patients waiting for hours in the waiting room of a trusted neighborhood doctor (primary physician).
3.    Customers willingly viewing boring repeated commercials for seeing their favorite program on TV…

One way to look at it is to think of convenience as part of the overall value proposition, just like functionality, price, package, access or pride.  By providing one of these values in “delightful” proportions to the customer, you can please other stake holders (e.g., share holders or employees) by shaving off a few points in other values.

- Sri Vadrevu
SigMax-e Consulting