Railways, Restaurants and Broken Cogs – 10 Ways to Create a Great Customer Experience

Jamie’s Italian Restaurant was opened on Park Row in Leeds City Centre in May 2010. On the site of an old bank, its ornate design has a very classical feel and at the time, was the 10th restaurant to open as part of the chain that began in Oxford in 2008 and which today has more than 30 restaurants worldwide.

The National Rail Museum is located in York, a short walk from the mainline station. It was opened at its current site in 1975 and displays a collection of over 100 locomotives and nearly 200 other items of rolling stock from the last 300 years. It is the largest railway museum in the world and attracts more visitors than any other museum outside of London.

Whilst very different businesses, meeting very different needs, both have commonalities running through them, driven predominantly by the fact that they are both service businesses; and the great thing about a service and what sets it aside from non-service businesses is that you and I, the customer, are integral to the experience.

We have to be present to participate in the delivery of the experience. For example, you can’t enjoy the National Rail Museum in all its splendor remotely – you have to physically be in the building to look at and interact with the exhibition. Similarly, you can’t eat a meal at Jamie’s restaurant without actually going there, sitting down, ordering and consuming the food. (This is converse to a product business, such as the manufacturer of toy trains or frozen meals where you can order the product and have it shipped. You being there isn’t integral to the process)

Think of any service business and the same rationale applies. Want to enjoy an overnight stay in a hotel? Then staying at the hotel is integral to the experience. Need a haircut? There’s no way to do that other than to sit in the chair. Want to benefit from your gym’s spin class? It’s a pre-requisite that you’re in the class, in the saddle.

The fact that you and I are integral to the consumption of the product (whether that product be a restaurant meal, a museum, a hotel stay, a haircut or a gym class) means that we are critically impacted by the manner in which that product is delivered to us. It becomes all about the experience; and the extent to which we are thrilled or disappointed by an experience is largely governed by how that experience is presented to us, by the people delivering the service.

The people delivering a service make or break it in the eyes of the consumer.

Had you been with me when I went for a meal at Jamie’s Italian in Leeds last week, then your experience would have consisted of the following elements: there was no one around to greet us or show us to our table when we arrived; when we did sit down, the waiting team were slow to come and bring menus or take a drinks order; when they did take a drinks order they left them on the bar and forgot about them whilst they stood around and talked; when the food came it was cold, a problem which was dealt with by taking the dishes away and putting the food back into the pan for a quick ‘flash’; questions on the menu were answered with a lack of understanding; whilst requests for parmesan and balsamic vinegar were greeted with the same enthusiasm I would have expected had I asked the waiter to give me a piggy-back home after dinner.

Had you been with me when I went to the National Rail Museum in York at the weekend, then your experience would have been very different and included the following: when we drove into the car park, an attendant stopped us and pointed out several areas which were free; after showing us to one of the available areas, he then showed us the way to the main entrance of the museum; inside, when we asked if a particular attraction was open, we were politely told no, given an explanation and offered several alternatives; the staff in general were quick to offer their help and assistance; when we asked for directions, they escorted us directly there; and in general the people working there went further than they needed to in order to help.

Although different businesses meeting different needs, both of these businesses rely heavily on their people to generate the experience for their customers. In one of them, they do it exceptionally well and amplify the experience. In another, they do it badly and detract from the experience.

So what are the critical elements of a great experience? After all, customer satisfaction – just being satisfied – isn’t what makes you recommend the place to your friends and become a ‘fan’. On the other hand, having a great experience is more likely to have you recommend to others and become a ‘fan’.

1. Enjoy what you do

Interestingly, there are over 300 volunteers who work at the National Railway Museum. They’re not there because they have to be or are paid to be, but there because they want to be.  And it shows.

2. Smile and use positive language

Not surprisingly, when someone smiles and uses positive language, they create a positive feeling and therefore experience. Whilst apathy and indifference may not lead directly to a poor experience, they certainly don’t help.

3. Offer alternatives

It’s just a fact that sometimes things won’t be available, will run out or not be working. That’s just life. But take the time to offer a genuine alternative – the next best option.

4. Be courteous and polite

These are table stakes, but without them, the service and experience suffers immeasurably and therefore are absolutely critical to success.

5. Know your stuff

If I’m in an Italian restaurant and ask for glass of a particular wine and I’m told ‘no, we don’t have that’, by the waiter, then I don’t expect to look at the wine list to see that very same wine on the back cover!

6. Don’t blame the system

We don’t care, nor should we. We don’t care about the system, the process or the policy. We just want to be listened to and someone to help.

7. Do more than is expected

If my food arrives cold and I send it back, don’t just stick it in the pan and re-heat it! Tell me you’ll get a fresh dish and ask if I would like a drink in the meantime.

8. Listen to the other person

Actually, go one step further and focus on the other person. When they’re talking, make sure your mind isn’t elsewhere – just listen with a clear mind.

9. Move with pace

People like to see a sense of urgency, of energy and momentum. If you say you’ll do something, get it done. Take action immediately.

10. Make it personal

Care about what you do. Like the volunteers in the National Rail Museum, do it because you want to. You can’t fake that kind of attitude and it’s contagious. If you believe in what you do, others will too. (More on that particular point here)

More and more of us are now in a service business. The lines between products and services are becoming blurred and so what matters is the customer experience. What matters is someone leaving and saying, ‘that was great!’ and you just can’t get that with apathy and indifference. You can’t get that with mediocrity or ‘satisfaction’ and you can’t get that with people who see their role as ‘just another cog’. Because cogs get replaced and machines with broken cogs fail.


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