It’s all about the customer

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Chip and Dan Heath, in their brilliant book Made to Stick, engagingly discuss how to make your company’s core proposition not just communicable but also achievable. They cite the process of a US president telling chiefs of staff what he wants to achieve from a military operation. Generals pass objectives down to colonels who, in turn, communicate them to captains. Each adds their own bit to the task and eventually a ‘commander’s intent’ is issued which consolidates the various messages into a simple core.

In business, we would call this a branding and marketing exercise. The problem with the military technique and why it invariably fails is because no plan survives contact with the enemy. In other words, we have no idea how opposing forces will respond, or what they themselves are planning.
No business plan survives without contact with the customer. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. There’s a restaurant in St James’s in London that historically has been cursed with bad ‘concepts’. The (very rich) owners once had an idea to fuse Japanese and Italian cuisines. They were delighted by what they had invented. PR campaigns lauded their creativity and vision but not many dined there – apart from restaurant critics going to give them a big slap, most famously the Observer‘s Jay Rayner, who called the place “one of the most irritating restaurants in London dining history”.

A Russian oligarch then approached the rich owners, who were slightly less well off after this failure. Backed by new cash, the proprietors paid a fortune to a successful restaurateur known for notoriously maverick ideas to provide a new vision for the space: it was to be a Japanese restaurant where the only alcoholic drink served would be sake. No wine, beer or champagne would be on sale. And so, of course, there were no diners. This time the owners responded to customer outcry by stocking other types of alcohol but ended up charging absurd prices for a glass of champagne or beer. The restaurant closed after 18 months.

One of the biggest reasons why nine out of 10 restaurants never complete a year in business is because they invariably only think about the customer when it is too late. I’ll give you another example.

Three years ago a chef with two Michelin stars opened his own restaurant. So I decided to take a colleague along to take a look. But to walk into a City restaurant on a Thursday lunchtime to find only three other tables occupied – one by a naturally inquisitive restaurant-owner rival – sent alarm signals. These warnings became noisier when we opened the menu. It was a list of words – pigeon, sirloin, salmon, and so on. I called over the waitress to tell her we had obviously been handed incomplete menus and she responded with that dreadful phrase: “Let me explain how our restaurant works.” The ‘concept’ invited diners to select one ingredient for a starter and one for the main course, and for the chef to cook them in whatever manner he fancied. Now I try to be polite in other people’s restaurants but sometimes I can’t help myself. “Is the chef paying for my lunch?” I enquired. She replied that he wasn’t to which I responded: “Well, seeing as I am, I shall have the salmon grilled as a starter and the sirloin medium-rare with fries and a salad.” I’m not making anything up about what happened next.

“We don’t serve fries,” she countered. Now, it’s not as if I was in a Chinese restaurant asking for fries. This was a place that had a massive display grill for cooking its steaks. To not serve them with fries was frankly ridiculous. At this point, the waitress walked off in a huff and clearly went to tell the chef because he then arrived at our table. I knew him, and he asked me why – when he knew I admired his previous restaurant – was I being so conventional?

“Don’t you like fries?” I asked. “I love fries,” he replied. I bored him into submission, and he went away and cooked them. He returned with the food and I questioned why the restaurant was so empty. “People just don’t get what I’m about,” he moaned. I suggested he might like to find out what his customers are about if he wanted more of them.

That no plan survives contact with the enemy may be true and no business, unless artificially propped up, survives without contact with the customer. My colleague asked how long I would give it before the place closed. I predicted six months. I was wrong – it lasted three.

About author

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab is a restaurateur who drives social impacts to the core of his businesses. The founder of The Cinnamon Club and Roast is chair or patron of a variety of social projects and is planning more restaurants this year.

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