When we moved from New York to St. Louis to start our restaurant, Vicia, the low cost of entry into the market was one of the reasons why — in the larger cities we had worked in, the cost of entry made it almost impossible to build a business alone.
With that low cost of entry came the opportunity to play, experiment, and innovate. Creating something in a city like this one meant having the chance to try groundbreaking ideas and see what customers would let us do. The lesson was that a burgeoning city's hunger for growth made that growth easy. And once our restaurant was well underway, we were grateful for that lesson because it turned out to be just as true for growing our own business.
Growth in food hospitality, however, requires an immense amount of quick thinking. In any restaurant, agility is the name of the game — how can you meet the unique needs of different diners’ appetites? Better yet, how can you exceed their expectations and give them something to remember? People take their food seriously, so it’s a delicate balancing act.
And although the exact decisions we make to remain agile are specific to our industry and our business, their principles are more democratic. In fact, they can apply to nearly any industry.
Being as Agile as People’s Appetites
For any business, customer relationships are built on trust. The most successful companies build loyalty by providing an excellent customer experience while being consistent in their messaging and advertising. The food industry especially must embody this principle — again, most people are pickier about their food than anything else, and few things change as often as people’s appetites and tastes.
One of the best aspects of a restaurant is that you directly interact with customers all day, every day. (The invaluable, real-time feedback that’s right at your fingertips is something companies spend so much time and resources on trying to acquire, so we’re fortunate there.) In the food industry in particular, we have to continuously take this feedback and make tweaks to dishes and services, often changing things from one day to the next.
However, restaurants also have to stay true to their values and principles. We can’t change our identity because one person doesn’t like us. In other words, we never thought to equate agility with reckless pivots. Restaurateurs must quickly learn that we can’t please everyone, but that doesn’t stop us from striving to make all guests happy during their visit. For us, this required the flexibility to be as innovative as the dishes we provide, using feedback to constantly improve without changing the core of our restaurant’s identity.
For instance, our reservation policies and overall training of our front desk have evolved quite a bit since we first opened. At first, we wanted to keep everything 'by the book' and make sure every diner and employee followed every rule. We quickly learned that the elements of time and people made things more complicated. Plans change, and when a guest was a bit late but now is standing right in front of you wanting to enjoy your food, you find a way to accommodate her.
Learning to always look for ways to say “yes” gave us the freedom to improve our customer service based on how our customers wanted to be served — and it made us better problem solvers. At the end of the day, freedom and flexibility are always the solution.
Make These Lessons Work in Any Industry
The agility restaurateurs must implement in order to succeed can be summarized in three important lessons — and they aren't just limited to restaurants:
1. Ask how everything is — and mean it.
In the past, research indicated that about 80% of businesses believe their customer service is excellent. Only about 8% of customers agreed, and companies lost a total of $62 billion because of that misconception. That’s quite a gap.
Regardless of your exact customer engagement strategy, reach out to your audience sincerely and you’ll receive a sincere response. It may not always be what you want to hear, but we know from experience that righting a wrong in real time is infinitely better than letting someone’s negative word of mouth harm your reputation and bottom line.
2. Trends will always be there, but they're not always for you.
When social media changed the face of customer engagement strategies, marketers took notice. They also noticed that people interact most with videos, and companies began to pour all of their resources into video marketing on social media. What many didn’t realize, however, is that the most popular videos were about food, fashion, and animals, making all that time and ad spend a waste for many industries.
When you know what consumers actually want, you can take advantage of trends that fit your business model. Yet you shouldn’t jump on every bandwagon. Invest in thoroughly understanding a trend before joining in to make sure it lines up with your brand and principles.
3. Employees need knowledge to engage.
Employees on the front line are the ones interacting with customers and getting their feedback. The ones who are engaged and educated about their roles perform consistently higher than those who aren’t. Just think about your own dining experience with a top-notch server versus a so-so one — the former was likely much more knowledgeable with your questions than the latter.
It’s managers' job to keep employees both educated about the company and engaged with their work and customers. As you continue to grow, change, and add new products, that engagement is even more important. If you want employees to be flexible yet stay sincere to the brand’s principles, then they need all the knowledge you can provide them.
Restaurants are great places to learn about customer service, both the good and the bad, because it’s all about interacting with humans on one of the most human events we know — having a meal. But the lessons learned through building a restaurant’s reputation hold true for any industry. Knowing when to stick to your brand and when to experiment and push the limit will help your company stay agile enough to satisfy even the pickiest customers.