Mamma Mia, Sell to Me!

Having lived for so many years in Spain, it should not come as a surprise to me to repeatedly encounter what I consider to be negligent service in the restaurant business. And yet I continue to be surprised. I suppose because I come from a culture and mindset that values a certain type of customer service and, beyond that, the attention of a restauranteur (or any other business owner, for that matter), to his or her business and craft.

pizza graffitiThere’s a pizzeria in my neighborhood that I like. They make the kind of pizza I’m used to from New York–thin, greasy, tasty, with lots of cheese, and that you can fold and take big bites out of and savor in your mouth. They deliver quickly, and even add some fresh basil leaves in the center as a decorative detail. So far, so good. However, their phone manner is terrible. Basically, the attention doesn’t meet my expectations, as a customer and as a marketer. Given that they’ve got a loyal, admiring customer in me, why not take the opportunity to not only sell me the pizza I’m ordering but offer me some other items? I went to their website so that I could choose from the menu…oops! No menu. So I had to make up what I wanted. On the phone, the person on the other end of the line didn’t help me with any suggestions, didn’t then tell me about special offers (“Hey, you just ordered a family size pizza, you get a free Coke if you order some blah, blah, blah on the side” or “Have you tried our mozzarella sticks?”). And they didn’t provided a printed menu with my order, so that I might order again! The key to customer service, in my book, is not to just deliver me what I’ve ordered but to help me order more. Feed me. That will make me happy, (really, it will), because you’re being attentive to me and giving me other items I may not need but that may satisfy my hunger or other cravings, and that will certainly make your boss/business happy, because you get more mullah in the till.

I’ve had similar let-downs in restaurants and bars here. I order a glass of wine, for example. I can nurse that wine for hours if I want. But what if I’ve finished it? Does anyone come around to see if I want to top it up? No. Even when I may not think I want another glass, the mere suggestion/offer will probably get me to say “yes” anyway. As is most likely the case with many customers. It’s all about the attention. Others might call it engagement–paying attention to your ready audience.

The waiters have no incentive to entice further orders because they don’t live from their tips, sure. But they’re also not incentivized because they don’t really feel a connection to the business they work for–they don’t see the correlation between offering good service, selling more goods, and helping their business to make more revenue hence provide them with a salary and maybe (God forbid!) a raise. And they feel no connection with their customers. There is no understanding of the connection that you as a server have with your business; no understanding of the delicate connection, more importantly, that you have with your clients.

THUMBNAIL_IMAGEThe underlying issue here, however, is that the idea of selling is a negative one in this particular culture. In a recent discussion with Alessandro Daliana of ROKC, we agreed that certain European cultures, still mired in a pre-industrial mindset, feel (probably unconsciously) that it is enough that the quality of their product be good. The mindset is artisanal: my product is unique, it is of the highest quality, people will come to me, I don’t need to reach out to them. Also involved in this approach is the idea that selling is akin to “begging”. This is something ingrained in the culture, not conscious behavior. This is a culture where it is important to maintain an appearance of financial independence, a separateness from the “dirty work” of asking your customer or potential customer to purchase your wares. (In an aside, if you think about it, in some way that is the essence of the culture of the haggling system in the souks, the outdoor markets: the shop owner sets a high price on the value of his goods and behaves as if he does not want to part with his wares, he can’t possibly do so because they are so valuable; you have to convince him that you truly want the object you’re bartering for through skillful arguments and long discussion. You can talk him down, but you have work for it. If you don’t play the game, you can’t possibly want the object. By that same token, if I really want more than the pizza or another glass of wine, I have to do the work.)

This makes me wonder, in the age in which we live, should we accept and appreciate the cultural differences in customer service and behave accordingly? Can businesses survive and prosper with this behavior? There is much to choose from these days. Online and off. What we have seen and come to expect is that those businesses that offer you more than you want initially, that foresee your consumer needs or create them, are more likely to grow. Amazon sets the example online with special suggestions to the consumer based on her previous purchase or, when you place your purchase or examine an item, stating that others who bought this item also bought… This is not a human being, this is an algorithm, but the concept remains the same. In real life, I think we can and should expect this kind of engagement, one that both sides will benefit from: the consumer, with another item that will give him pleasure, the business obtaining more sales. More importantly, both learn something more about each other–the consumer finds new items he likes in this business, and the business finds out more about their consumer. I want to know more about what my local pizzeria has to offer; they would in turn learn more about what I want and perhaps what others like me would want. A virtuous circle. A perfect pizza pie.