I have been working in the marketing business for some 40-odd years and in the hotel business for at least 20 years, but I still keep forgetting my own rules. And every time, I do so at my peril!
The trouble with running a business – any business – is that no matter how well it’s going, we always keep trying to do better... and sometimes that runs the risk of doing worse.
Forty five years ago when I was in my first advertising agency job, I can well remember a meeting with our top client’s managing director (GlaxoSmithKline in those days), in which he insisted he was tired of the current campaign, was sure the customers were equally fed up with it and wanted to see something new by the end of the week. As a lowly copywriter, I could only watch in wonder as my extremely smooth managing director pointed out gently and respectfully that, as the campaign hadn’t even launched on television yet, the chances were that the customers were not yet suffering from slogan fatigue.
It was a valuable illustration of how easy it is for anybody running a business to get tired or bored with the current offering and restlessly try to do something better. It’s a dangerous temptation. It may satisfy our restless search for perfection but it does risk at best confusing our clients and at worst losing them altogether.
Understand your market
Whatever kind of hospitality business you are running, you’re not doing it to satisfy yourself, you’re doing it to satisfy your guests. Whatever it is about your current offering, if you are more than half full, you must be doing something right, so changing it on a whim can be a very foolish way to go.
Mind you, it’s easy to avoid making the mistake – all you have to do is ask your best customers what they want and what they think. Firstly, it will stop you making a fool of yourself and secondly it will help you make improvements that actually work, rather than just tinkering for the sake of it.
Despite all my years of experience, I very nearly fell into this old trap myself when planning this coming year’s promotional mailing. During the winter season 2011/12, we ran a series of ‘foodie feasts’ which were designed to bring in individuals who would enjoy a kind of ‘dining club’ atmosphere and the opportunity to meet with like-minded individuals in congenial surroundings and enjoy different takes on different cuisines. They have gone reasonably well – in fact some of them were a sell out – but I noticed that with one or two exceptions we didn’t get a lot of the same people coming back. Perhaps more significantly, we didn’t get our most faithful regular customers taking up the offers in droves.
When it came to planning the current winter campaign, we had some bright ideas for some exciting evenings but, before completing the mailing, I took a bit of my own advice and sent a questionnaire to my top 50 customers. The answers I got back were intriguing and can be best summed up by the remarks of one valued client who has been coming to us for over 20 years and even has most of his private parties at home catered for by our team. He said: “Don’t stop doing what you do so well just to do something different”.
When analysing the majority of responses, it was clear that most of our regular guests come to us for their own reasons and find we suit them – again – for their own reasons. What they don’t particularly want is to be part of someone else’s party – they’d rather make their own.
Having had the initial feedback, we had some direct conversations with a number of our guests. We found that what they actually want is the opportunity to come to interesting events from time to time but the regular and unchanging opportunity to come and feel at home within their familiar comfort zone whenever it suits them.
What has been a great success has been our ‘house party style’ antiques weekend and we are running that again this year. Although it’s not until December it’s already a sell out.
Don’t suddenly be different
The lesson, I think, is to listen to the customers and give them the opportunity to join in or not with your new ideas without assuming that because they like you for one thing they’ll like you for everything. They simply won’t.
Listening to your customers can be a humbling but heartening experience. What we have found out over the past few weeks is that the things we often take granted about ourselves (always time to talk, always some passion in the kitchen, always a relaxed atmosphere without stress or competitiveness) are what make us attractive. It’s not the smartness of the environment (there are smarter places) and it’s not the innovative brilliance of the food (there are edgier kitchens). It’s not even the ‘jaw-droppingly beautiful’ (I quote Salisbury Life) environment we are lucky enough to inhabit. It’s a combination of everything that makes us individual and welcoming.
Listen to your customers... and your staff
The upshot of this is that we’ve simplified our promotional programme for the coming winter and focused on putting in some relaxed opportunities for people to try new things but without forcing them into a mould of our own making.
We had a ‘team day’ last week for all the team and shared this information. What was very interesting was their reaction. “I could have told you that,” said one of our newer and very popular members of the front-of-house team. “So could I,” said Martin, our excellent number three chef who, at 26, is wise beyond his years.
You see, they are often closer to the customers because they talk to them every day. So from now on, all new ideas will be tested out first with the staff and then gently simmered in front of the key guests before we even think of promoting them.
It may sound a bit cowardly but discretion is ever the better part of valour and being a bit cautious is an awful lot better than losing your best customers. They are hard won and are worth fighting hard for.