What if I were to tell you that customer service is the secret to any business' success? You may consider this an old fashioned notion; I realize that in today's ultra-competitive business world, so many are focusing on things like SEO, email marketing and moving their business to the "cloud."
I don't mean to discredit those efforts, but the reality is this: customer service, when extraordinary, can be the one factor that can launch your success story and float your business through the hardest of times. To be honest, poor customer service is something your clients may never forget and second chances don't come easy.
I'm all too familiar with the need for memorable customer service. As owner and host of Valentino Restaurant in Santa Monica, California, I've counted on customer service excellence to see us through our 42 years in business. In Los Angeles, 42 years in the restaurant world is something to be celebrated, especially when competing with the likes of celebrity chefs, L.A.'s ever-evolving neighborhoods and the latest food fad. I know firsthand that the hospitality industry is not simply about the food.
I first learned the foundation of customer service as a teenager. I emigrated with family from Sicily to Brooklyn in 1964 and began my career humbly -- working in the kitchens at New York University. At just 17, a one-way bus ticket brought me to Los Angeles where I connected with an uncle, who was a manager at Chasen's, at the time one of L.A's ritziest places to hobnob with stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Gregory Peck. I was a bus boy there, and it was during those days that I realized that it was working in restaurants was where I would be happiest. And so, at age 25, I opened Valentino.
It didn't take me long to realize that there was more to keeping the business going than quality wine and food -- it's about the client's experience as a whole. How they feel when they interact with your business is just as important as your product, if not more so. If you want to secure your business success for years to come, it may be time for you to re-evaluate your customer service strategy.
Here are some of the key things I recommend to keep customers top of mind:
Start with a customer service audit
Be a hands-on owner and take a look at your customer-facing processes. You may be surprised what you learn -- especially if you have been focusing on other areas of the business more intently!
Foster a culture of service
Customer service is not a one-time task -- it's an ongoing, foundational element in your culture that comes to life with every point of contact with the customer. For my team, this begins with a warm smile and personal greeting when customers walk through our door. It ends with a personal thank you and "Arrivederci" as they exit, demonstrating that we welcome the opportunity to host them again. This is not one person's task but an attitude that runs through the ranks of everyone on staff. It sets the tone for first-time customers on through "regulars."
Be gracious with feedback
You may receive feedback from customers regarding things that need improving, or that they simply weren't happy overall. Certainly, this can be difficult to hear sometimes, but thank your customers for taking the time to share their experience to you, whether it's positive or negative. Tell them that you will look into their situation -- and then make sure you do so. Mistakes will happen. It's how you handle them that is important, especially if you have the opportunity to respond directly to the customer.
Complacency is your enemy
If you feel that you've worked through your customer service issues, don't get too comfortable just yet. This should not simply an item on your to-do list, but an ongoing effort. Customers have high expectations and word travels fast. Guard your reputation by always be thinking of ways to improve. Stay agile. Seek to prevent problems. Your intuition will serve you well here. Aim to be a good judge of the people on your team as well as the customers you meet. Read their eye contact and tone, and then react accordingly.
Respect your team
Happy, respected employees will be enthusiastic and pleasant to work with. This is demonstrated in how they interact with customers and even each other! The restaurant world has a bit of theatre in it, as do other industries. To set the stage, it's important to get to know your team and build rapport because everyone in every role impacts success and what customers experience every day. Don't be mechanical about it, however. Be genuine and consistent.
Remember, making your customers feel special will set you apart from the competition, no matter your industry. In these days of automated phone prompts, countless emails and social media review sites, curating a personal and genuinely thoughtful experience for your clients is something that will be timelessly appreciated and remembered.
Follow Piero Selvaggio on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Valentino_LA