Are you ready to blow your customers away in 2019?

My wife and I welcomed in the New Year sitting in the same restaurant, in the same seats, at very the same table where I proposed on New Year’s Eve six years ago. We have a standing reservation at Boca Restaurant every NYE at table 77 however our loyalty to Boca goes well beyond the tradition of celebrating our engagement.

A few years ago, my wife made a reservation at Boca, for my birthday celebration. In the end, she ended up having to cancel the reservation. Several months later, my wife made a different reservation at Boca, this time for a dinner with our family. My wife didn’t do or say anything special when she made this second reservation — it was just your normal, run-of-the-mill phone call.

The four of us sat down for dinner that night and ordered our drinks. They were delivered to our table, along with a plate of fried pickles. Note that Boca is a high-end restaurant; they do not serve fried pickles, and we didn’t order them. Nonetheless, there was a plate of my all-time favorite comfort food, sitting in the center of the table, and prepared just how I like them (cut into chips, not spears — this is a critical detail!).

Excited, I look over at my wife. She looked very confused. It was at this point that our server looked over at me and said, “I understand you love fried pickles. These are compliments of the chef.” As the server walked away, I leaned over to my wife and thanked her for putting a bug in the chef’s ear.

“I didn’t!” she responded. “When I made your birthday reservation, I mentioned that fried pickles were your favorite, but that was months ago.”

Through this conversation, we realized that Boca obviously has some type of reservation system that allows them to make notes about customer preferences. Not only do they have this system, but they make a point of actively referring to and using it, as the delicious plate of fried pickles sitting on our table proved. We were blown away.

Blow Your Customers Away

Had the pickle chip incident happened on my birthday as my wife had originally orchestrated, I still would have been impressed with Boca. However, the fact that it happened months later at the least expected time made it a truly memorable moment. I will forever be loyal to Boca. It also bears mentioning that my undying loyalty came at virtually no cost to the restaurant. It is also something they never could have accomplished through any amount of marketing or advertising dollars. Intrigued, I started researching the Cincinnati-based Boca Restaurant Group, including interviewing the CEO and chef, David Falk. All told, Boca has over 650 employees spread throughout restaurants in four different states and continues to grow.

Based on my own experience, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Boca has a company-wide mandate to “blow people away,” or, as they refer to it, BPA. As Falk puts it:

“Our highest ethos in the organization is BPA. It was all predicated on the idea that I was scared to death when I opened my first restaurant because I didn’t have anyone to blame for my failure but myself. I just kept saying over and over again, ‘We have to blow people away.’ Soon, BPA became a noun and a verb. ‘We have a BPA on table 77’ or ‘We BPAed that table.’”

Team members at Boca actively and regularly look for opportunities to blow their customers away. As I can attest to, it works!

As Falk shared with me, over the years, Boca has even codified the process of blowing away. It consists of three primary steps:

1. Aggressive listening, which has to be done in a covert way

2. Creative and organic ideas, which have to be genuine and spur-of-the-moment

3. Flawless execution

The idea here is to keep the BPA system as open and flexible as possible. Falk explains, “It nullifies the power if you try to make it too regimented. Genuine hospitality and generosity are really hard to find.”

While we are looking at BPA through the lens of the customer in this chapter, it doesn’t have to stop there. Falk explains, “My favorite BPAs are when we BPA our staff or our staff BPA each other.”

I am personally deeply inspired by this BPA policy, but it’s not something most establishments actually do. Obviously, BPA results in an incredible and memorable customer experience. However, for it to be more than just words on a page, Boca has to do a very important thing: they have to empower their employees. To truly blow people away involves more than just polite, route service. It requires going the extra mile. If team members have to check in with their manager each and every time they want to go that extra mile, it would amount to nothing more than good intentions much of the time.

By empowering your employees, you open the floodgates for unparalleled customer experience. You are essentially handing over the keys to each of your team members, allowing them to create the kind of personal connections and lasting memories that foster a deep-seated loyalty to your brand.

-The above is an edited excerpt from “Thanks for Coming in Today — Creating a Culture Where Employees Thrive & Customer Service is Alive” by Charles Ryan Minton. Available on Amazon.

Want to offer a great experience experience? Start with your employees!

The following is an edited excerpt from the book Thanks for Coming in Today: Creating a Culture Where Employees Thrive & Customer Service is Alive by Charles Ryan Minton.

Your team members’ experience of working for your company begins from the very first point of contact they have as an applicant. Immediately, their opinions are being formed about what it means to work for you.

This is why onboarding is so important. In fact, a recent article in HR Daily Advisor points to the fact that 91 percent of employees remain with a company for at least a year, and 69 percent remain for at least three years if a company has a well-structured onboarding program. Talk about a huge payoff!

The Hiring Process

Very few companies put the attention they should into the experience of applying for a position. Everyone should, for two very important reasons. The first is that from the moment a candidate logs on to your website or picks up an application, they are absorbing cues about your company and what service means to you.

Secondly, applicants are also either customers or potential customers. Even if they don’t ultimately get the job, your business may very well have an ongoing relationship with them in some capacity. Just like any other customer or employee relationship, you want to nurture your relationship with applicants.

Finding The Right People

In a perfect world, your dream candidate would just show up on your doorstep. Unfortunately, finding a great customer-experience-oriented employee can require some sorting. Let’s look at some key points of the hiring process that will help you find just the person you’re looking for.

Often, the process of curating candidate options is done at the discretion of the human resources department, but I’ve found it’s helpful to give HR an idea of what I’m looking for. I have come to believe that most people like serving others for the simple reason that it feels good to make other people happy. However, certain people have developed more of a skillset around service than others. Some people are great at coding, others are great at painting a picture, and some are born to serve. Those are the people you want to identify and bring onboard.

If you notice some common key attributes among your preexisting star employees, be sure to let HR (or whoever comes into first contact with potential employees) know what those are so that they can screen for them both in the job posting and during initial conversations with candidates.

Over the years, I have learned that candidates with a positive attitude, high energy level, and sense of presence do very well in customer service. I also look out for people who have a history of volunteer work, are involved in their community, and are excited to talk about their family. All of this provides promising clues about how you can expect that person to interact with others.

Job Posting

I’ve noticed that there often seems to be a disconnect between the person writing a job description and general brand messaging. Remember that not everyone who sees your job posting will apply. Some of the readers will be (or already are) customers. Job postings should be an extension of who and what your brand is. After all, you want to find employees who align with your brand philosophy and what it stands for.

While you may very well not be the person writing the job posting, you will generally have the chance to give it a once-over. Aside from checking for consistent messaging, also notice if the job description needs to be spiced up. Remember that your potential candidates are looking at other job postings as well. You want yours to stand out so that you can attract the highest-caliber employees. By all means, do not stretch the truth and make the job or your company sound like something they’re not. That’s a tactic that will only backfire in the long run. Do remember, though, that good people want to work good jobs for good companies. Make sure your job and your company sound like a situation that outstanding employees will want to be a part of.

All of this might sound a little bit overboard. Trust me, it’s not.

Today, the biggest challenge companies face is finding and retaining great talent. That’s right. It’s not creating more product or finding more customers; it’s finding great people to be on your team.

According to a 2017 report from the National Restaurant Association, 37 percent of its members said labor recruitment was their top challenge, up from just 15 percent two years earlier. Just like you are selling customers on the fact that your company is the best, you’re also selling employees. A little extra effort is well worth your time and energy in the long run.

You won’t always have control over all of the communication that goes on between your company and a candidate, especially during the early parts of the hiring process. But remember, every bit of communication from the first touch point on conveys a message about how your company treats others and the kind of service it provides.

When it’s appropriate, I might approach the person who is either overseeing or having those initial conversations with candidates and say something along the lines of “Hey, can you please walk me through the applicant process?” If I find out the person leading up the charge is someone I haven’t worked with before, I might offer a very gentle — and extremely respectful — reminder that they will be providing the applicant with the first glimpse of our company’s service.

Likewise, you want whoever has first contact with potential employees to be screening them immediately as well. How do they interact on the phone? What about emails? All of these are important clues that give you an idea of the type of customer service you can expect from a potential employee.

Interviewing

I feel it’s important that the highest-ranking person in any customer service organization personally meets with candidates before they are hired as part of the final interview. This is an integral part of building your customer service experience to the greatest degree — ensuring that every person on your team is a good fit and of the right mindset for the service environment you are creating.

Since employees have already been prescreened before I interview them, our meeting generally consists of two primary questions that tend to let me know everything I need to know. For example, if I managed a spa, the first question I would ask is “What do you look for when you walk into a spa?” This same question can be applied to any industry. While this is somewhat of a softball question since most candidates will reply that they want it to be clean or expect good service, you’re beginning to instill a very important mindset — that you want your employees to put themselves in the customers’ shoes.

The second question — which I consider to be crucial — is “If you could do any job in the world, why would you choose to serve people?” The answer that I love most to hear is something along the lines of “Because it makes my day to see someone smile,” “I like to make people feel good,” or “I want to impact someone else’s day in a positive way.” This is a good clue that the person sitting across from me is wired to thrive in the type of environment I want to create. When I hear people give this type of answer, I know they were born with a service hospitality mindset and will thrive in this position.

A few times, an otherwise perfectly qualified and experienced candidate has gotten to the point of speaking with me and provided an answer that’s more along the lines of “I’m looking for a part-time job” or any other number of responses that have nothing to do with service or interaction. No matter how much I need to fill the position or what kind of previous job experience they bring to the table, I always pass. This type of response is a clear red flag that they’re not going to have the skin in the game my team needs in order to meet the level of service we want to provide.

There are a few other cues I look for in a potential employee that give me a good idea of how they’ll interact with guests. When they’re waiting for our interview in the lobby, I notice their body language. Are they smiling at people as they walk by? As we speak, I take note of whether or not they are engaging in our conversation. Are they polite? Do they make eye contact? Do I sense genuine excitement? All of these things are important and will translate well with customers.

It’s easy to get caught up in hiring based on experience and background. The truth is you can teach anyone the rote tasks they need to perform. You can’t teach an attitude or instill in someone the desire to want to help others. It’s these intangible qualities that matter most. Over the years, I’ve hired plenty of people with literally no work experience. What they do have is a great attitude and a genuine excitement about serving people. Not once have I regretted one of those hires.

Many years ago, I interviewed a woman for a front-desk position whose personality was downright infectious. She had no experience whatsoever in the hotel business. I passed her right through, but she failed a mandatory personality assessment that the hotel required all potential employees to take. It was company policy that you had to pass this test in order to work for the hotel. Still, this woman had crushed our interview, and I knew in my gut she would be incredible in the position. I had to have her on my team.

I bent the rules and had her retake the test after some coaching. This was a big no-no, but I didn’t care. I needed to get her where she had to be so that I could hire her. Fifteen years later, she is now a highly successful hotel industry sales manager.

The most important action I took in that situation was to listen to my gut. If your gut tells you someone isn’t right for your team despite the fact that you can’t pinpoint why that might be, they’re not your person. End of story.

One final caution when it comes to hiring: in the service industry, it can be easy to settle for someone who is “good enough” because your team is overtaxed and you need to fill a position. In the moment, it might seem like any warm body will do. I can tell you that every single time I’ve fallen into that trap, it has backfired.

After years of experience, I have learned the hard way that I would much rather suffer through leaving a position open for as long as it takes than putting the wrong person in a role. Logistically, it is difficult to exit people. It is also difficult to coach someone who is not the right fit. You end up spinning your wheels and, in the end, spend a lot more time, energy, and money working with someone who has been cast in the wrong position than you would have if you had just waited it out to hire the right person.

Create A Welcoming Environment

When it comes to onboarding, I think Dustin DiChiara, who owns a Chick-fil-A, has got it right. In the 2018 American Consumer Satisfaction Index, Chick-fil-A received a rating of 87 out of 100 for the third year in a row in the limited service category. Its closest competitor, Panera, was a distant second, with a rating of 81. Clearly, Chick-fil-A is a leader in customer satisfaction.

DiChiara has every new employee spend their first day at the restaurant’s administrative office rather than the storefront, where it is much more distracting and difficult to focus. While it may not always be possible to utilize multiple locations, it is possible to incorporate the sort of intentional process DiChiara exemplifies in terms of making time for new employees throughout the onboarding process.

Even if you are onboarding a team member at the same location where business occurs, you can make sure the two of you are away from the front lines, where it’s less chaotic. You want to get yourself into a situation that allows you to give your full attention to the new hire.

This is especially important because I’ve noticed this special sort of Murphy’s Law: Onboarding days always tend to be the craziest days. This makes it easy to lose focus on the important task at hand in favor of putting out fires and dealing with day-to-day business. Also, if it does get crazy, it can be intimidating to employees. You want to ease them into the fray and allow them to connect with you before hitting the front lines.

Making this sort of space for employees — even for a relatively small portion of time — communicates a lot. It sets the tone for the sort of experience an employee can expect working with you. You are also serving as the representative of your brand. On a subconscious level, you’re emulating the sort of attention and experience that your brand wants to create and that you expect the employee to create for customers.

I’m sure that you’ve had plenty of first days at work, so you can relate to the fact that starting a new job can be nerve-racking. It’s even more so when you feel like you’re in the way or don’t belong. If an employee starts off feeling cast away, it can be a difficult feeling to reverse. Having an organized process helps by greatly reducing the chances a new hire will feel as though they are lost in the shuffle or floating out there on their own.

You can minimize an employee’s first-day nerves by creating a structured approach. Before they even arrive, let them know what to expect — when and where you’ll be meeting, where to park, what to wear, who to ask for, and any other details they’ll need to make their arrival as smooth as possible. This might sound like minutiae, but have you ever been in a panic when you’ve arrived at an important meeting only to find a confusing parking situation? It can be enough to throw your entire day off, particularly if you end up running late or are harried because of it.

Another big part of making each employee feel welcome, important, and acknowledged is having everything they’ll need ready to roll by the time they arrive. This includes tiny details like having their email account (if they have one) set up and ready to log in to, name tags printed and waiting for them, and a folder with their paperwork all set. Just like details matter to customers (which we’ll discuss in depth in Chapter 7), they also matter to team members.

Finally, make sure that either you or a direct manager are there to greet the new hire on their first day. I’m always shocked when a department manager schedules a new person on their day off. This leaves so much room for error, and there’s no amount of planning that will keep the new hire from falling through the cracks to some degree. No one else will care about the newest member of your department as much as you do.

The person meeting the new hire should have a firm understanding of the importance of onboarding, how it’s structured, and your expectations. Furthermore, I always like to assign a buddy to the new person. The buddy system doesn’t have to involve anything more than ensuring the new hire has someone to eat lunch with that first day, but it still allows them to begin to build their network and start feeling like part of the team. It can be difficult to be an outsider, at a loss for where to even begin making connections. Again, put yourself in their position — being a new hire can feel a lot like the first day of school all over again. It’s intimidating. Do everything in your power to make it less so.

Your onboarding experience is one of the first glimpses team members will have of what it’s like to work at your company. It’s also their first look at what service means for your brand. Just like they will be serving the customer, you are serving the employee. Things that might seem small or even inconsequential — like being disheveled or disorganized — matter. They convey very real cues that can potentially set a tone you don’t want to communicate.

Most importantly, you’re showing new employees they matter. Right off the bat, you’re telling them their presence is appreciated and important. They are a priority and the most important item on your agenda during that time you are spending together. Much like you create an experience for customers, you also create an ongoing experience for employees. Onboarding is a particularly critical touch point within that experience.

In Summary

It sounds almost too simple, but the bottom line is that you can’t offer a great customer experience without great employees on hand to provide it. Of course, you want employees who execute and are responsible. However, even the most technically proficient and efficient employee won’t add what your team needs if they are not service-oriented.

By keeping this at the top of your mind throughout the interview and onboarding process, you will find the people you need to create a stellar customer service environment, and you will make them feel invested in your team from day one. Employees who feel appreciated create customers who feel appreciated.

To keep reading, download Thanks for Coming in Today: Creating a Culture Where Employees Thrive & Customer Service is Alive by Charles Ryan Minton.