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Tell Me What You DO Want

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For many years, I've frequented a hot dog diner in Natick, MA called "Casey's Diner." I first discovered Casey's about six months after I moved into Natick (after a few unsuccessful attempts to find it). Casey's is the most non-descript, perfect place to get lunch. They serve a very limited menu -- specializing in hot dogs and hamburgers. On a given day, I'd estimate more than 50 percent of the crowd are regulars. The tiny diner has been part of Natick's culture since 1922. Inside the diner, there are only 11 seats at the bar-like counter. Many customers order from the simple take-out window on the side of the building.

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In my opinion, there is a lot that an entrepreneur can learn from watching the lunch shift at Casey's. They run a very tight ship -- and it's a study in operations and customer service. Over the past few years, I've sat at the counter countless times watching Pat Casey and his team work their lunch magic. There is much to write about what they do so well -- today, I'd like to cover how Pat has taught his customers to order at the take-out window.

When a customer comes up to the window (usually to order hot dogs), Pat typically says hello and asks "What can I get you today?" Those who have ordered at Casey's in the past know that the hot dogs come "standard" with yellow mustard, relish, and chopped onions. In Casey's parlance, this is an "all-around." Customers can also choose to add ketchup. With everything on the hot dog, it's called a "Wellesley" (as the old Natick joke goes: the neighboring town of Wellesley has everything). That's what Casey's offers on hot dogs -- nothing more and nothing less. Simple, and very delicious.

Invariably during the lunch shift, a customer will come to the window and tell Pat that he wants a hot dog "but without relish" or "without the onions." Quick as a flash, Pat Casey responds "I don't care what you don't want, tell me what you do want."

Watching this interaction, I always feel a surge of inner glee. One customer at a time, Pat teaches his customers how to order at Casey's. I secretly love watching the befuddled customers as they stutter and try to order again. You can practically see the realization on their face as they hone in on what they do want. Once in a while (on a particularly special day) Pat has to repeat his mantra. And on very rare occasions (and when Pat is in a mood) he simply doesn't tolerate customers who don't tell him what they want. "Why don't you come back when you know what you want" he'll say, as he shifts his attention to the next customer in line. (Oh, the glee!)

This anecdote has many wonderful lessons for entrepreneurs. Allow me to pick a few:

  1. Teach your customers how to order. They'll get what they want faster, and you'll be able to service more customers.
  2. Ask customers what they do want -- and don't spend time listening to them ramble on about what they don't want. If I had a dollar for every time a Punchbowl customer told me what they didn't want...
  3. Repeat your core message as many times as needed until every single one of your customers hears your message. Don't assume that everyone has heard your message even if you have told the last five people.
  4. It's harsh to admit, but some customers are expendable. If a customer is taking too much of your time and preventing you from servicing other customers, then it's ok to ask the customer to move on.
  5. Provide a great product, but don't feel like you need to offer all possible options. Sometimes mustard, relish, and onions are good enough.

SWAMI SAYS: If you ever find yourself in Natick, Massachusetts during lunch hour, ask the locals how to get to Casey's. When you show up, tell Pat what you want. Because he doesn't care what you don't want.