Stuart and the City

Where does a good customer care strategy start? In this blog, Stuart Everson of Everson & Partners muses on the challenge of raising the bar of service to contribute to a positive experience and the vital role this plays in the business environment

I was recently asked by a contract catering client to visit one of their sites to determine why sales were falling when there were no changes to the onsite population or their working patterns. Off I went with my cheery disposition and well versed motivational chat for the catering team.

My first clue that I was about to meet my “Waterloo” came when I introduced myself in reception and received a wry smile. The receptionist called through to the catering department and the manager duly came out to meet me. It’s fair to say that the manager’s demeanour did not put one’s mind at ease. My cheery “I’m here to help you” didn’t cut any ice whatsoever and my perfectly made, by them, macchiato turned instantly into a frappuccino. The manager then explained succinctly what they did, how they did it, and that the fault clearly lay with the customers and not with them.

I then wandered around and couldn’t help but notice how reserved and anxious the catering team were. However, lunch was then laid out in the immaculately clean and organised service area and, whilst a bit dated, it looked and tasted delicious. The tariffs were competitive with the high street and the selection well balanced and appealing, I would be proud to be the MD of this catering company!

The customers arrived and again, they were quiet and anxious, overly polite. Then it hit me: it’s not the food, the service or the tariff that’s wrong here – it’s the atmosphere.

I sat down with my delicious lamb souvlaki to contemplate how I was going to advise the catering company to proceed. Could I really recommend that they start the counseling procedure and, if they did, how would they set and measure improvements? I then started to remember some of the managers that had worked with me over the years and it came to me…

The catering company I co-founded with Jon Hewett, Everson Hewett, decided some years ago that we were going to grow up a little and gain the Investors in People accreditation. Our operations team, always up for a challenge yet diametrically opposed to any form of convention or conformity, started to get that look that they always got when they were about to completely bamboozle Jon and myself into submission, appealed for an adjournment of the meeting we had called. They had a plan.

The ops team announced they were totally committed to gaining the accreditation and that they had researched in the Guidance Notes where we were as a company and what we therefore needed to do in order to gain IiP. The action plan came up on the screen and the assistant presenter began to stand up at certain points and write a letter on the flip chart, which slowly spelt out the name of our most cynical and skeptical manager. Their idea was that it would be their branch of the business that trialed the action plan. Well you might well know where this is going. This manager became the voice of reason, who tirelessly worked to get their branch up to the standard required; their team became the most supportive I had ever seen them and yes, they were quickly ready for the assessment.

My solution was that we would task my client’s manager with trialing a new customer care programme (that didn’t yet exist) and that they would pass with flying colours because when handed a challenge they similarly committed to it and saw it through no matter what. My challenge then was how did I broach the subject of a customer care programme? Oh, and yes, write a customer care programme for a catering company that they hadn’t asked for one?

I left the somewhat confused manager saying that the food was very good, the service was very good, the tariff was competitive and that we had to find a way of enticing the very misguided, thoughtless customers back into the restaurant. Leaving with another wry smile and an ‘I hope we will see you back here soon Mr. Everson’ from the receptionist.

I then went off to think about customer care.

How could I quickly write a programme (that I wasn’t going to get paid for – this is always concerning when I need my day rate to pay the bills – Bandjo and Freddie won’t eat any old hay and horse feed)?

Yet again I thought back to my own business, and our Top Ten. This was a list of ten steps that guided catering teams in meeting, greeting, talking to and interacting with guests/customers using the now famous Fish Philosophy as the background. I would update this and present it to the mystified MD. My starting point would be easy – if you are going to charge commercial tariffs and run a commercially viable catering contract, the food and service has to be very good. But the way you look after your customers has to be way ahead of the ever growing high-street field.

stuart-eversonAs I ordered my second Macchiato of the day from one of my favourite café’s, I found myself buying a large piece of almond cake because the server bantered with me so outrageously that I couldn’t disappoint them. I am marginally allergic to almonds so should avoid them and much prefer any form of chocolate cake – and rest my case. I then watched the other assistant going after the next victim – sorry – approaching the next customer. That almond cake wasn’t going to last very long.

Stuart Everson co-founded City based Everson Hewett, now part of Restaurant Associates. He now manages his advisory company Everson and Partners and is part of the EP Evolution network.

For more information about EP Evolution please contact Chris Sheppardson, chris.sheppardson@epmagazine.co.uk.

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