What I Know About Business I Learned In Food Service

What do the food service industry and the creative design/ consulting firm have in common? More than you may be comfortable admitting.

Both thrive on good customer service.

In my new arena we like to call this User Experience, or if we are feeling particularly trendy, UX. With customer acquisition costing more than 7x the cost of retaining a customer, many don’t have the wiggle room allotted to the more fortunate to lose a difficult customer or client.

You have to make it work.

This means that often your job 60% of the time is to do whatever people ask. In food service we call this “getting the shaft”, in B2B we call this “being customer centric”. Yet, why the disconnect between these two industries?

In the food service there is often no buy-in due to the high turnover rate in employees. At the end of the day you come to work and you do what is expected of you so that you can enjoy the finer things in life: paying bills, having a drink with a friend, and making alimony.

In the B2B world, especially in a start-up or creative firm buy-in is a prerequisite. You must come in each day, acknowledging that everyone must lay all of their cards on the table. You may still be making your alimony payments, but often you didn’t get into this line of work to pay the bills, and if you don’t make it work you may be out of a job.

Despite the many differences between these industries — the way the financials are managed, their cultures, or their target markets — many of the same principles of good business hold true.

Good customer service, and user experience translates across all industries and transcends many mediums, products, or services.

For instance, one day in the office I realized that it is the end of the month and I need to put together a report for one of our clients. However, the last one I put together for this client took nearly my entire work day, with many previously discussed action steps and recommendations, none of which were heeded. In fact, I never even got to present the report to them, nor could I succeed in reaching them or following up.

This time around, I wasn’t feeling keen on sacrificing this kind of time on something that would not be utilized or add much value in the client’s eyes. I discussed this with one of our directors, who agreed and recommended we wait until they asked for it or had at least followed up on the previous report. However, I remembered that this was outlined in our SOW for this particular client as a deliverable for the end of each month. They were paying for the service whether they put it to use or not.

Like buying a sandwich you never eat.

Or taking home leftovers, only for them to spoil in the fridge.

Or purchasing a coffee, but leaving it grow old and cold in your car.

My mind flashed to my days working at Panera , our #1 rule was not that the customer was always right, rather that:

“You can bend or break any rule to satisfy the customer.”

Who was correct was irrelevant, what mattered was making it work. Not only was it my responsibility to do what was needed to take care of the customer, but I could offer refunds, free food, drinks, vouchers, etc. without consulting a manager first. Now, we had to keep a record of each transaction and make the appropriate entries, but I did not need permission to do so.

The permission was given, what I did with it was all that needed to be determined.

At Panera, often times this looked like making a new panini because the last one burned. Rather than trying to serve it and wait for them to complain — you explained what happened, regardless of fault, and you began working on a new one and you offer the customer a free cookie or beverage because they have to wait an additional 3 minutes for their meal.

At Whiteboard, you begin working on your report and presentation that may take you 6–8 hours to put together.

You make sure it is easy on the eyes, even if your client may never read it.

You make sure the strategy points and takeaways are solid, able to be implemented, and backed by data — even if they will not be put into place.

You do not wait to be asked for something that you know was your responsibility to create.

To draw from another Panera mantra, “You get the tough stuff done with mastery and excellence.” — the first time and not after they have complained that you burnt their sandwich or forgot their report.

One of my many outstanding bosses at the Panera in Cleveland, TN once asked me what I had learned in my class that day. I happened to have been learning about linear regression, sensitivity analysis and forecasting . When I explained this to him as we worked, this conversation took place…

“That’s great that you are learning that kind of stuff in your classes.”
“Thanks, yeah I am actually enjoying it too. Hey, do you guys use any of this stuff as you project sales or plan the budget each month?”
“Yeah we use a weighted 3 week moving average most of the time and adjust based on where we were at this time last year…But, Nick, I hope you know that you will learn a heck of a lot more about business working here than you ever will studying that stuff in your class.”
“Oh come on…this is my education we are talking about, surely I am learning more in my classes.”
“You are learning great principles to build upon, but I assure you that all of your fancy exponential smoothing models will not prepare you for the real nitty gritty of how to run a business or work with difficult customers and employees.”

It turns out Willie was right.

What I know about customer service and managing expenses, labor, resources, and time I owe to the food service.

The $5 caramel latte that you made for a customer at _____ , causing them to flip out and explain that they didn’t order this and will now be late to work because you screwed up, could produce a similar reaction to your client who has been waiting months for the launching of their new website when it is not what they expected.

It may in fact be what they ordered.

You could be right, but who is at fault and how is correct is irrelevant right now.

We are now talking hundreds of thousands of dollars and a setback of months rather than minutes. So cut them some slack when they flip out and become short of breath.

After all, this may be the same dude who started his day off wrong when he got the wrong drink at Panera earlier. Often times it is the same dude.

But now it is your job to make it right, and you have the freedom and discretion to decide what that may require.

You can bend or break any rule to satisfy the customer.
Make it work.