Customer Experience: As Important as Your Food

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The customer experience may be more important to repeat business than any other factor. Learn how to provide the intangibles that draw customers back again and again.
Server bringing food to a table of customers at restaurant
©iStockphoto.com/Oktay Ortakcioglu

Every food service operation must offer the basics of food, service, and décor, no matter what the segment—that’s what restaurants, employee cafeterias, student snack bars, and healthcare dining service departments are in the business of providing to their customers. But now there’s an intangible that is also becoming vital, and that’s the experience. 

The term Experience Economy was coined by consultants James Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II as a new way of thinking about how businesses need to connect with customers and secure their loyalty. According to this framework, today’s customers want more than just high-quality goods and services. They want value from positive, engaging, memorable experiences along with high-quality goods and services. 

As an example, Gilmore and Pine cite Starbucks. Coffee is a widely available commodity that many people incorporate into their daily lives. Why are so many people willing to pay over 300% the price of a coffee at a convenience store, or 800% more than a coffee brewed at home, to have a cup of coffee at Starbucks?

The company’s success is proof that people are willing to pay more for an experience. From the comfortable chairs to the ability to relax with friends or alone with a WiFi connection, from the convenient brewed coffee of the day program to the specialty coffee made to exact specifications, from the personalized service to the carefully curated music, Starbucks has created an atmosphere that provides a memorable experience to their customers. And they keep moving the bar with everything from expanded menus to mobile payment options. 

In fact, many customers value the overall quality of an experience even over the food—according to a recent Reward Networks survey, while great food is important, it’s not what drives loyalty and repeat business.

What does? Although it depends in large part on the type of operation, the target demographic, and the customer need state, consumers have come to expect the following when they eat away from home:

  • Menu variety

  • Customizable options

  • Fresh ingredients and preparation

  • Convenience (including hours of operation and mobile ordering)

  • Order accuracy

  • Willingness to address dietary issues and special orders (including health and wellness and food allergies/intolerances)

  • New features (such as menu specials and promotions)

  • Prompt, friendly service

  • Value for the money

  • Point of difference with competition

  • Dependability and consistency

  • Comfort (including seating, lighting, noise level, and safety) 

Get Started: It’s easy to meet customer demand for gluten free options when you use products from Minor’s® and Stouffer’s®, including Stouffer’s popular Alfredo and Alfredo Parmigiana sauces.

These are the new basic goods and services of away-from-home dining operations, part of the cost of being in business. In order to get repeat business, operators need to offer the extra element of experience. Here are a few easy ideas.

  1. Add authenticity by identifying suppliers, including local farmers and food artisans, on the menu or other point-of-sale. Natural Chef Café, at Central Carolina Community College, is part of the school’s culinary program but also is designed to familiarize all students with the local bounty.

  2. Get involved with the community in charitable ways, such as designating a night’s profits to a local homeless shelter, or giving employees time off to volunteer. Strip House, a steakhouse in Livingston, N.J., sells “dog bones” to customers and donates some of the proceeds to the West Orange Animal Welfare League.

  3. Conduct new item testing during business hours, and share samples with customers; not only will you get feedback, but you will give guests a sense of “ownership” of the menu.

  4. Integrate social media in a way that engages customers. The salad chain MAD Greens uses its menu boards to share fan content, including Instagram and Pinterest posts.

  5. Be creative with loyalty and frequent diner programs. Taco Republic uses its “season pass” to build customer visits during the off-season; customers love the perks, and Taco Republic loves the extra business.