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  • Writer's pictureNick Bonney

Love at First Sight - Lessons In Customer Service from Fred!

It’s that time of year again – Fred and his wonderful team have returned to our screens this week with more First Dates. It’s such a simple format and, as a nosey researcher who loves to people watch, I confess to finding it completely addictive. Yes, of course nothing is real in TV land and characters are edited to create a story-line but there is something strangely compelling about watching strangers interact for the first time.

However, what makes the First Dates restaurant an even more special place though is the genuine warmth on display from Fred and his team. Never do you get the sense that they’re laughing at the shows participants but rather that they’re doing everything in their power to build rapport and ensure their guests have a simply wonderful evening.

The First Dates Team (picture c/o Multitude Media)

It’s easy to put this down to natural charisma and Gallic charm but, having recently completed Fred Sirieux’s book Secret Service, it’s clear that none of this is by accident and what looks like instant rapport is actually the end product of a tried and tested system, refined over many years in the restaurant trade.

There is no better example than the greeting every diner arrives at the restaurant receives; that trademark Fred smile is simply him up to his own core principle that everyone in a customer facing role should ‘See first, smile first, say hello first’. When it’s written down like that it seems so simple but how many hotels, restaurants and retailers fail to do just that; the cashier who refuses to make eye contact or the countless staff in a back office seemingly oblivious to the mounting queue building at the desk and ignoring any attempt to catch their eye.

Often its operational barriers which are thrown up as the reasons why these kinds of human interactions don’t happen; we hear tales of the challenges of training front line staff (often on low or minimum wage) or of replicating these practices at scale. The restaurant industry is probably more challenged by this than any other, often relying on temporary staff or minimum wage employees to interact with their diners. No wonder then that successful restauranteurs have been able to maintain such simple principles to ensure a consistently great experience.

Whilst this kind of approach might not be that surprising, I have to say that I was more surprised to see familiar ‘corporate’ language around customer experience principles popping up frequently in Fred’s book.

"You not only have the ‘what’, crucially you also have the ‘how’…. This is the hardest part to get right because it is about customer perception. The best way to do this is to establish distinct touch-points in every customer journey. By creating distinct touch-points you can help every waiter even the bad ones to get the right result

A customer journey can have 15,20 or 25 touch-points and any business that deals with customers should have this journey mapped out purposely and distinctively… it is the only way you can deliver a consistently high experience"

With so much hype around mapping a customer journey it was refreshing to read someone boiling it down to first principles both in terms of the way to approach it but more importantly articulating why you’d want do it in the first place. How often do these kinds of first principles get lost in translation when big programmes are being rolled out?

What brought Fred’s words into sharp focus as I was reading his book was that I was currently in the midst of my own ‘service recovery’ journey with two brands at the same time. His book served as an interesting benchmark against how to assess the response of each brand. Whilst, probably more culpable for the original issue, one brand gave the impression that they genuinely cared and did everything in their power to try to rectify the situation. Yet what really threw the other organisation into stark contrast wasn’t just the lack of response but also the language which was used:

Thank you for your recent correspondence regarding your booking. I am currently looking in to the issues you have raised and once I have completed my investigations, I will come back to you. Please note we work towards a 10 working day turnaround time. I thank you for your patience whilst your file is reviewed and will be in touch again soon.

As a response this provides a fascinating insight into the company culture. There is no attempt to personalise the mail to my individual circumstances, there is no attempt to apologise and there is certainly no sense of urgency. Somewhere along the line, even the customer relations team appears to have lost the emotional understanding so essential to delivering a great experience.

It would be an easy answer to say that the customer voice is just easier to lose in big organisations but I know from the number of surveys I have received over the years that this particular brand in investing significant sums in a raft of NPS metrics. However, measuring the scale of the problem is one thing but mobilising a large workforce to inspire change is quite another

So for all of the dashboards and the large expensive programmes , it’s crucial to ensure that the softer, cultural elements don’t get lost along the way. This often isn’t about complicated business transformation but about ensuring a ruthless focus on delivering the basics and a genuine empathy for your customer. As Fred says when quoting Aristotle on the very first page of his book - excellence is not an act but a habit.


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