Good Old Fashioned Service

This is my column from the May Ponsonby News. Apologies in advance for the length of it and also for the lack of photos to break up the longish narrative!

I don’t know about you but I have this thing about service at cafes and restaurants I frequent. I have an expectation based on what I call “old fashioned service”. But it isn’t old fashioned at all and I’m not sure the “old fashioned” when it comes to customer service was better or worse than service today. Perhaps I have a yearning for what I perceived to be service in the good old days!

But the reality is, be it then or now, service quality can be very variable across all types of businesses even though with my writing I’m more inclined to focus on eateries of all shapes and sizes.

If I was to choose three words that summed up what I expect from service providers, and it’s not just at cafes and restaurants, they would be quality product, empathy and helpfulness. Actually there’s also courtesy, pleasantness and appreciation. Ok, six words – that add up to “customer satisfaction”!

That’s why we are drawn back to some cafes and restaurants and not others, in fact to any business. Self-evident it may well be but why do so many “retailers” not deliver the service we expect, let alone exceed our expectations. Why do they not get it?!

And because Poncentric is all about focusing on the positive I’m going to try and write this column without naming and shaming!

Actually in my experience, and talking about eateries, I’ve found the variability is often less about the food and more about the other elements – or their absence.

So what do we do if we have good or bad dining experiences? Well in the old days the only real avenue we had to praise or critique was word of mouth.

There was lots of research on how many people we tell about bad experiences versus good experiences – we tell many more about the bad than we do the good. Research by American Express revealed that on average we tell 15 people about positive experiences and 24 people about poor experiences. Granted this was research undertaken in 2012 in the US but it’s hard to imagine that kiwi customers will be any different, then and now.

What’s changed of course is the emergence of social media and review sites. These days it’s not just a dozen people we tell about good or bad experiences, it can be 100s or 1000s. Social media and its immediacy, its real-time impact if you will, has placed significant power, and responsibility, in the hands of the customer.

With instruments such as Instagram we now can, and I frequently do, post photos and comments on the spot, from the table. And of course an Instagram post will inevitably be “shared” on Facebook – well that’s what I do, but only if I’m having a pleasurable experience. This sort of reviewing on social media is a reality of our times.

There is much debate on this subject with both professional reviewers and restaurateurs joining the debate. There are those who would challenge the “new” critics as being unqualified to pass judgement. This may be so in some instances but it is a reality and it’s not going to go away.

There are those who would suggest that such reviewers can have a negative impact on these businesses. Well I regularly check out such sites as Trip Advisor, Yelp, Zomato, Menus.co.nz, Dine Out, Metro Eats to name but a few and by far the majority of reviews are positive. And many I take with a grain of salt. So I suggest that business owners embrace the new order and turn it to their advantage because it’s not going to go away.

Providing service that exceeds expectations and builds customer loyalty is a key component of the success of many establishments.

And isn’t it interesting that the most successful and long established eateries are, to me, the ones that not only have consistently excellent food but also consistently exceed my expectations in terms of service. I emphasis the word ‘consistently’ here.

To be honest if I have one gripe about restaurants generally it is with their “front of house” staff particularly with respect to the “maître d” or manager role. Call me old fashioned (there I go again!) but my best dining experiences have been those where the maître d has been “visible”; where they have acknowledged our presence and engaged with us in at least some modest form.

I don’t have high expectations but it would be nice if at least once during the meal the maître d would approach your table and enquire whether everything is ok. Not an unreasonable expectation I’d have thought. Common sense in terms of satisfying the customer and building loyalty don’t you think. And yet how often does it happen – not very, I hear you say.

A case in point. We dined for the first time at a local eatery recently. Food was good, service was reasonably attentive, but it bugged me that over the two hours we were there no one approached the table and asked us if everything was ok. The difference between coming close to meeting our expectations and exceeding them, of “delighting” us. Will I go back – maybe!

And on the subject of front-of- house, two stand-out maître ds in my experience are Brandon at Prego and Armando at Gusto Italiano in Three Lamps. I know there are others but in my experience these two stand out. They are “visible” and will almost certainly warmly “engage”. And yes there are more, but there are many who don’t. Ask yourself: when was the last time I was amazed and delighted by the service I received and pleasantly surprised that the maître d engaged my table?

Gusto Collage

A reader of my last column commented to illustrate the point: “I think exceptional hosts, and they’re often owner-operators, are a big part of ‘standing the test of time’ – people who make you feel special, and who are attentive”.

And it’s a two-way street – meaning it’s not only about the customers. Brandon Lela’ulu from Prego had this to say: “You know, there’s such a thing as a ‘professional customer’ too. Like any interaction/connection in life, having an understanding of other people and communication allows for everybody to walk away smiling….the guest and the host”. How true.

Prego SelectionSo I’ll leave the final word on the subject to Brandon who won the prestigious 2014 Lewisham Award’s Best Maître d’ award.

Brandon says floor service comes down to enriching guests’ experience and caring about what you’re doing. “When I dine out, I want to be looked after by ‘real people’. I don’t want a robot handling my food,” he says.

“An average meal can be improved by a warm, genuine smile, and robots aren’t programmed to do that. If something goes wrong, the real test of quality is in the solution. Having someone who cares is a huge part of the dining experience for me. I will always feel ripped off without that.”

Interesting how Brandon bases his service philosophy on what he expects as a customer. No punches pulled here! Now if only we could get all businesses to adopt this philosophy.

Don’t you just love Ponsonby? And by the way you can check out what Poncentric is up to at www.poncentric.com and https://www.facebook.com/poncentric

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