Facade, New York City © Alistair Kerr
If you’ve seen shows like The Hotel Inspector or Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, you’ll recognise the scenario: celebrity troubleshooter goes into failing business, throws hands up in horror, reveals behind-the-scenes stuff you’d rather not see if you plan on ever eating out again, argues with defensive owner, puts it all right, goes home.
I’m loathe to admit it, but I’m a fan.
Not because of any ghoulish fascination with things going pear-shaped, but because I love seeing a small business having its fortunes turned round. Sure, like panto, you could write the script for most of them, but, like panto, the stories are all about averting disaster, making magic happen, and letting everyone get back to living a happy life. And as a sucker for a happy ending, there’s something I like about that.
I get a buzz watching anguish and frustration turn to joy, and businesses that were on the brink of extinction start living up to their full potential. It’s great to see cranky, bickering staff and managers finally pull together with the common goal of making happy customers.
It restores my faith in human nature when I see people admit they were wrong, that others sometimes know better, that change is needed – and accept help to put it right.
There’s one show that sticks in my mind. The restaurant was rigged from top to bottom with secret cameras, to capture every last move from staff and customers: kitchens, front of house, stores, lobbies, passageways, and exteriors (mercifully excluding toilets). Not a square inch escaped scrutiny.
The result – very dirty laundry being aired to a global public.
Fights between owners, managers and staff within earshot of customers…skiving staff doing sweet nothing while others worked their socks off…waitresses coming on to male diners and a barmaid handing out her phone number…managers continually on workers’ backs but providing no support…and the waiter who repeatedly tried to pitch his side gig as a stand-up comedian to an influential guest – who finally left in exasperation, taking the rest of his group with him.
This was Fawlty Towers uncut – without the laughs.
The biggest eye-openers came from the overheard customer conversations. While some were bold enough to vent off to staff or managers about the service, the majority just endured it, grumbling to others at their table just loudly enough to be caught on camera.
In one evening, there were at least a dozen customers who would never be coming back – and would probably tell everyone they knew. How’s that for lost revenue? (Those of you who work in hospitality will probably notice that your toes are curling slightly at this point, and a bead of sweat is trickling down your back.)
No surprise then that the single biggest lesson hammered home by the troubleshooter was this: the customer comes first – always.
Ruining the customer experience is a very, very big no-no.
I see three other big lessons.
First: the restaurant’s Trip Advisor reviews were glowing about its food. Really glowing. The product was great, but when it came to the customer experience, they might as well have been serving raw chicken.
You’re only as strong as your weakest link. A great product counts for nothing when there’s something wrong with the rest of the picture. You may not have brassy barmaids, but you might have a snippy telephone manner, dirty vans, or a painfully bad website that makes booking a chore. It’s all part of the fabric of your brand.
Second: what lurks behind a glossy exterior isn’t always pretty.
Your visual identity – whether that’s a clever logo, great décor or seductive adverts – is just one part of your brand. Neglect the rest and you’ve got a facade with nothing worthwhile behind.
Third: the owners were oblivious to the problems until they were shown the secret footage.
That’s sobering. Running a business but being completely out of touch with what customers are thinking, or experiencing – until they put their jacket on and don’t come back.
Only a minority of unhappy customers made their feelings known to the business. The rest just voted with their wallets, quietly vowing never to return. So don’t assume that lack of customer complaints means all’s well.
But before you get too comfortable – have you taken a look at your own business?
How do you know what customers are thinking, seeing, feeling – and what is their experience of your brand?
Are the contents a good match for the cover?