Defend Truth


Dinner is served


Mike Abel is a leading marketing and advertising practitioner. He is Founder & Chief Executive of M&Saatchi Abel and M&C Saatchi Group of companies operating in SA. He is former CEO of M&C Saatchi Group, Australia and before that, co-led the Ogilvy South Africa Group as COO and Group Managing Director, Cape Town. Mike has been awarded Advertising Leader by the Financial Mail and Finweek and his company was named Best Agency in SA in 2015. His company is home to The Street Store, the open-source, pop-up clothing store for the homeless which has become a global movement. He is a speaker and writer.

For those of you in business, I want to share a hopefully useful analogy. You are officially all in the restaurant business. As of now.

Business in South Africa, as we know and experience, is particularly tough and brutal at the moment, so hopefully, this will help.

I was chatting to some members of my management team earlier, about the value equation – and for any of us in an industry where relationships are important, it’s useful to think of your business, any business, as a restaurant.

I used to be a waiter in the Eighties while studying. I learnt a lot in those days. It was a hot restaurant, very busy, hugely popular, for the who’s who (or rather those who believed they fitted the bill). Expectations were high – and so was the pressure.

The nature of my job today means I eat out, a lot, and in many places around the world. But universally, good experiences and bad experiences are similar, irrespective of geography.

They come down to the basics:

  • The service
  • The taste
  • The ambience
  • The price
  • The thank you

So, whether you are a plumber, a doctor, an estate agency or like us, an ad agency, consider this…

The service:

Theodore Roosevelt is believed to have said “people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care”. And isn’t Teddy right.

So using our analogy, when you connect with your customer on arrival, be warm, courteous, look them in the eye, ensure their table is already ready, get them seated as effortlessly as possible. Being late, keeping them waiting, being confused about their arrival, being unprepared for that first moment of contact, immediately gets your customers’ hackles up and puts you on the back foot.

Offer drinks. On arrival.

We obsess about our coffee. The beans, the blend, the cups, the taste. Our clients love our coffee. It’s not a coincidence. Someone once said “God is in the detail”. It is.

The taste:

Great service can carry a poor meal. Once. Never forget the reason why your customer is there. For the food. Your core offering.

The real effort in your business must be to ensure a delicious meal. Consistently. Too often people forget that, and allow a bad meal out of the kitchen – once too often.

You’ll never know when the guest will have had one too many poor meals at your establishment – and simply won’t return. Ensure each meal is served within an acceptable timeframe, is served hot, or chilled, depending on what it is, and hits the spot on taste, every time.

If it doesn’t, and they tell you they aren’t happy, don’t argue. Delight. Go back into the kitchen and see how you can fix the situation. Give them some bombs of delight. A free bottle of wine, complimentary desserts or even a discount. You do not want to lose that customer. You want to use a bad experience as an opportunity to strengthen that relationship. My three A’s kick in: Acknowledge. Apologise. Act. (As in do something constructive.)

Innovate! Trends change. Keep abreast of them. Stay relevant. Stay interested. Stay interesting.

The ambience:

Think about the experience. Most businesses face over-traded markets. Product are often parity offerings. How can you use the experience to elevate yourselves above your competitors? Especially in a downturned economy.
What can be unique to you? What are the best practice table stakes? What do you then offer above that? What speaks to your company’s personality?

Is the tablecloth white linen? Ironed. Spotlessly clean. Crisp. Unstained. Is your cutlery placed correctly, the right utensils for the meal, shiny and stylish. Are your flowers fresh. Is the vase water clear?

Whatever your business, you must think about doing the basics brilliantly – and only then layering on the uniqueness. No point trying to be different – without absolutely nailing it at a functional level. Is there salt and pepper on the table. White sugar, brown sugar, sweetener.

The aircon level. The choice of music. The right sound levels. The acoustics. Conducive to conversation? The waiters’ attire. The lighting. Think it all through. Then layer on details which are true to the experience you want to create – versus fussy details. Less is always more. If it doesn’t add to the experience, it will subtract from it…

The best waiters are there to facilitate a great experience seamlessly. Not to be part of the evening’s discussions. Speak only as much as you need to. No more. No less.

Nothing worse than a service provider who prattles. The waiter, the hairdresser, the financial adviser or plumber who just goes on and on. It detracts.

Be warm. Be charming. Don’t irritate. A high EQ is required. When in doubt, always say less, not more. Train your staff to get it right. To do it your way. Interpersonal skills can be taught.

The price:

Your customer must never feel ripped off. I have been to restaurants which are mind-numbingly expensive and still loved the evening. It has been memorable, something to savour, reminisce and reflect on. Sometimes a high price even elevated the occasion. Makes it a treat. Makes it special. But, if you charge a premium and you get it wrong – that’s a disaster. You can’t charge for what you don’t give – tangibly or emotionally, usually both.

The customer will always determine the value. Not the supplier. You’ll simply charge the price. Value is not what you pay, but how you feel about what you’ve paid. Big difference. Ensure you add value wherever possible to justify your price.

There is a restaurant I used to go to often in Cape Town. It’s pricey. Great position. Eventually, we thought the value equation wasn’t right. We were paying to be there – not to eat there. Form was prized ahead of substance by the owners. Reputation, legacy and image, even excellent waiters who greeted us by name, could no longer justify expensive, average meals. We just felt ripped off. Used.


The thank you:

Always be grateful. Your customers have choices. Never take their business and loyalty for granted. The more loyal, the better they should be treated. Never confuse warmth with familiarity. These are concurrently emotional and transactional relationships. Understand boundaries. Understand your role. Understand your permission. Never allow yourself to be disrespected either. Never be disrespectful.

No sustainable relationship survives on a master-servant level. If you are the supplier, take heed of all of the above. If you are the customer, be kind, decent and respectful – and you’ll usually get greater service as a result.

There is a restaurant my wife and I used to go to often in Sea Point. New owners bought it. The lovely waiters we knew all gradually left. The new owner has never greeted us once. He entertains his friends or family at a table and the waiting staff are left to make the guests feel welcome.

We have never had a hello, goodbye or thank you from this owner. The food is still consistently good. We go far less often now as we are simply tired of the owners’ rudeness, the sense of entitlement, the ingratitude and sheer laziness.

Always say thank you. Always mean it. People have choices. They have options.

Hopefully, you can apply these learnings to your own business, whatever it may be.

As I always say, sometimes soft sell is the hardest sell of all. DM


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