Touch Points

With finances tight, now’s the time for businesses, especially in the service industries, to focus on how they can create brand value and loyalty through great customer interaction, says Ashgrove Marketing’s Terry van Rhyn

As a brand and branding obsessive, I can’t help but notice good and bad examples of brand experience wherever I go. Just recently I was lucky to spend some time away and the opportunity to have a few meals out got me thinking about the service and hospitality industry.

In the current economic conditions, hospitality is perhaps one of the sectors feeling the squeeze more than most and one where marketing and promotional budgets will be tight. But it’s also a sector where you can shine by just doing your job well.

When you unpack a great experience at a restaurant, for instance, it is mostly about serving good food, at reasonable prices, delivered in a pleasant environment by people who are attentive and friendly.

A great example that I remember in particular is the restaurant George’s Fine Steaks & Spirits, located in New Ulm, Minnesota, where my business travels took me on a weekly basis for a few years when I was working in the US. I was there the first night they opened the restaurant in 2002 and, over the years, I observed the owners, George and Karen, in action.

Early on, George was super pleasant but didn’t want to disturb me as I enjoyed my meal while planning my work for the next day. Then, one evening as I was about to sit down at my regular table, I saw that it had a reserved sign saying “Terry’s Table” which put a huge smile on my face. Before I placed my order that evening, he came over with a small plate of “steak tails” (cut-offs) and a dipping sauce. He sat down and asked me to test a spicy sauce he created to accompany his steaks as a new option for the menu.

After a few weeks, I started staying longer and helping him “close” the restaurant with a few coffees at his bar where we would put the world to rights till late in the evening. He asked me once what he should do to advertise his new restaurant and, given I was an adman, he probably expected me to come up with some elaborate campaign concept. My answer was to do no advertising at all – he was his own best ad.

I loved to observe the nightly dance as Karen moved elegantly around the tables catching up with customers, all of whom she knew by name, and with George cooking his fine steaks and occasionally chatting away from the open kitchen. Some tables got the “try this sauce” treatment while others updated Karen on their children or grandchildren.

It was this engagement with their customers and their community that made their restaurant so popular so quickly. I call this the “Cheers” factor: “where everybody knows your name” for those of us old enough to remember the 1980s sitcom.

There was no need for George to advertise as word of mouth spread like wildfire in this instance – everyone wanted to go there. Although the food was always superb, there were the odd time that George had an off night on the grill and my steak was a tad over cooked. I would never complain although I may have ribbed him a little, but the relationship was more important that the food. I wanted to go there – because they knew my name.

Of course the US hospitality industry has grown up very differently to the UK or Isle of Man. The US’s reputation for full-on service is a result of an employment structure built on a robust tipping culture. Most US waiting staff do not earn a base salary and they have to rely 100% on tips for their income. There are even some popular chains where waiting staff pay an “entry fee” in order to work there. The net result is that great service is at the core of the hospitality industry which is generally perceived as a profession and not just a source of part-time jobs to fill a gap between “real” jobs.

Unfortunately, over on this side of the pond we don’t always acknowledge waiting services in the same way and that means we don’t always invest in hospitality staff as we might, especially training. Often basic social skills are lacking, demonstrated through either no or overfamiliar and inappropriate greetings, reaching across diners to pour or collect plates, and customers being ignored as staff chat among themselves.

The key to success is thinking about how customers will “feel” when they leave. It’s about making sure every touch point with a customer is positive. That’s how a brand is experienced and ultimately perceived.

The old adage of “people buy people” is never truer than in hospitality. A grumpy face, an overly joyous and loud voice, or being ignored will immediately create a negative impression. The food may well be the out of this world, but the customer will be left with a poor perception of the entire restaurant because of one small silly interaction. You would then rather prefer mediocre food as long as the service people were pleasant and made you feel special.

Appreciating these touch points is an integral part of building a brand. And, in the end, the ability of living up to a brand promise is all that really matters.

So in these straitened times, it’s wise to remember that brands are not built through advertising alone, but rather through every individual interaction. Make your customers love you by making them feel special.