Tag Archives: customer service

When customer care doesn’t have to costa lot

coffe-mugIn 2002, I visited a community café in Market Rasen in Lincolnshire – I was helping to set up something similar in the Cambridgeshire Fens at the time.  The entrepreneurial organisers of the café – Arena – had recently paid £2,000 for an Italian coffee maker (a machine, not a barista) and I’m not sure they didn’t have to import it direct from Italy.

I use their purchase – a bold and costly investment at that time – in marketing courses as an example of a USP (Unique Selling Proposition) that differentiated Arena from the other two cafes in the town – a greasy spoon and a teashop with doyleys. (If you’re too young to know what doyleys or greasy spoons are, look them up).  They made excellent coffee at a time when that was hard to find, particularly in a market town, and people used to travel from far and wide for Arena’s continental offering. But that wasn’t all; the baristas taught their customers how to use the machine and had them judge each other’s brews. ‘Barista of the Week’ posters adorned the walls of the café.

I’m sorry to report that the Arena Café closed in 2009 after the best part of a decade, so it looks like their USP had a limited shelf-life.

Of course, excellent coffee wouldn’t be such a strong USP these days with coffee shops on every corner. The theory goes that everybody now has to make great coffee because customers expect it, right? And all the competition means cafes have to look after their customers or they close, right? And the best coffee shops are local and independent, right?

Well, no – not in my experience.

All I want from a high street coffee shop is decent coffee (but I’m easy to please…) and somewhere I can relax with no hassle from staff – so passive, reactive customer care does me fine. Which is not easy to find in many popular coffee and cake outlets where they want to get you out as quickly as possible once you’ve stopped spending. I once heard that a famous burger chain tilted their seats forward slightly to discourage customers from staying too long, but that may be an urban myth.

we-dont-rush-our-coffeeSo, I’m happy to commend a chain of coffee shops – Costa – for treating their customers like adults, and for being friendly and laid back. My day-job means I meet enterprising young people for 1-2-1 advice sessions on a regular basis. A coffee shop is ideal – a public place where they can relax, stay out of the cold, and get a hot drink. Costa coffee shops are particularly suitable because they’re ubiquitous, accessible, usually have enough space and, above all, the staff are relaxed about me staying all day to meet a steady stream of visitors.

In practice I introduce myself when I arrive and explain what I’m doing. They seem to be genuinely interested – one manager wanted me to take a look at his business plan (part of my job) for a new venture, another offered commiserations when two young people failed to turn up. In every location I’ve been to, the staff have let me set up a tab and I pay for all the drinks when I leave. They haven’t learnt my name yet or started making my regular drink (medium Americano in a takeaway cup since you ask…) as I walk through the door, but that might come with time.

Another way to build your reputation is through consistently good service (assuming you have a winning formula). A recent return to a Costa coffee shop was just as I’d hoped – the manager welcomed me; said he remembered me from last time (I bet he says that to everyone) then left me well alone until it was time to pay.

Afterword: Yes, I know the chain is run by a hospitality conglomerate, I know that their coffee shops are franchises, but I still want to drink to their continued success.


Learning to be Mr Fixit at a Repair Cafe

Charlie Hull Mr FixitGuest blog from charliejuggler

While I was growing up my father would try to fix almost anything (I have happy memories of stripping down and rebuilding an elderly Suffolk Punch lawnmower with him, aged about 7) and at home I try to do the same. In the last few months I’ve replaced the heater elements on our cooker, patched up a few toys and rebuilt a greenhouse.

I’ve been looking into how I might help at a Repair Cafe – an event where people can bring anything that needs fixing, from lawnmowers to ornaments to cameras, to a community hall where volunteers will have a go at a repair. The idea is to reduce landfill and re-use items where possible, and help those who don’t have the confidence, skills or experience to have a go themselves.

This Sunday I went to Royston to help out at their event. My score card reads as follows:

  • Black and Decker mains power drill – replaced the brushes, tested the switch, got it running but only slowly and noisily, discovered the motor armature was missing a piece which was happily trashing the new brushes, deemed it unrepairable. FAIL.
  • Digital camera which had been dropped, distorting the lens so it wouldn’t retract – took it to pieces (many, many teeny tiny screws) but it seems the lens unit is a single piece and hard to disassemble (not that I could remove it from the camera). FAIL. (note the same chap brought in both these items but seemed happy with the results, as at least he can get rid of the items now!)
  • Small lava lamp. Stupid moulded un-rewirable plug and inline switch (when I’m President of the World I shall legislate that everything should be held together with screws so you can take it apart). Tested and seemed that power was getting to the bulb holder, but neither bulb the owner had would work, so advised her to buy another. SUCCESS (if she gets a bulb that works).
  • Cast-iron clothes iron, used as an ornament. The handle had been damaged and many repairs attempted with Superglue but this hadn’t worked, so I cleaned off all the old glue, replaced a pin holding the metal and wooden parts of the handle together and re-glued it with two-part epoxy resin then strapped up with tape for drying: SUCCESS (if it held together all the way home).
  • I also consulted (which means hovered over other people’s repairs, making hopefully useful suggestions) – the most impressive repair was an old radio which needed a potentiometer taking apart and cleaning, the young lady was very pleased her grandpa’s radio was making a noise again.

I didn’t have my own toolkit, so had to borrow the cafe’s own donated one – it’s always difficult when you don’t have quite the tools you need but I got by. It was a fun morning and well organised – if not, these events could easily turn into a bunch of (generally) middle-aged men talking about their favourite spanners – not that I wouldn’t join in I suspect!

Hopefully I’ll be involved in a more local event soon – there’s talk of a roving event for the villages south of Cambridge.

With thanks to https://charliejugglerblog.wordpress.com

The Feed – a recipe for resilience

Latest in the new ‘More Expert by Experience’ series

Barry AllardThe Feed is a trading arm of Community Interest Company LEAP (www.norwichleap.co.uk)  providing fine food, catering services and more, in and around Norwich. They’re passionate about food and people – well, that’s what it says on their website – and nothing The Feed’s founder Barry Allard, a Fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Ipswich, tells me makes me think otherwise.                                                                                                                                                                                    I’m re-interviewing Barry 18 months on from our first chat about what starting a social enterprise demands and how he and his growing team have overcome the challenges.

The ‘social’ part of the enterprise is about providing work experience and training in hospitality and catering for those who, for a variety of reasons, are furthest from the job market.

The academy that Barry talked about in September 2014 has now supported three cohorts of learners through a 12-week course. The Flourish Employment Academy involves formal training working in the business and day workshops at local food producers.

When I ask about the intention 18 months ago to source ingredients locally, Barry is upfront about current considerations,

“We aim to use local producers wherever possible, and the Norfolk Food & Drink Festival community have helped us with this, but increasingly we also have to be aware about the cost of buying local.”

Balancing the ‘social’ and the ‘enterprise’ – principle and profit – is nothing new amongst businesses like The Feed that set out to bring business solutions to social problems. Barry is honest but positive about how they’ve been getting their house in order in recent months.

“I was realising that the hours I was putting into setting up The Feed [and LEAP – also founded by Barry] were not sustainable, and I required people with the necessary experience in the catering and hospitality industry.”

Feed logoThe solution was to take the big step of employing an experienced chef and adding to the staff team another recruit with relevant catering and retailing skills. Barry believes that they are now getting on top of the figures with better costings and the ability to make more informed decisions about which events to attend to make money and/or raise their profile. This has also enabled The Feed to make more contacts in the industry.

Another major development is the relocation of The Feed to Open – a multi-purpose arts and entertainment venue in central Norwich working with and for young people. Access to bigger kitchens, and opportunities to cater for conferences and other events on-site, has demonstrated the benefits of The Feed’s willingness to work in partnership with others.

18 months ago Barry Allard was aware that the catering and hospitality industry was not easy sector to work in. It seems his opinion hasn’t changed,

“It’s a difficult business; there’s the upfront expenditure with no guaranteed return and the potential for waste. A lot of behind-the-scenes work goes into putting food on the plate with associated costs, and success is often weather-dependent.”

Barry hasn’t yet worked out how to control the weather, but I’m left with the impression that he and his team are getting a firm grip on the financials and also seeing reward in preparing learners well for the world of work wherever their careers take them.   

Further reading:

Fast Food, Lifelong Learning https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/09/23/fast-food-lifelong-learning (September 2014)

Follow The Feed at http://the-feed.co.uk Twitter: @TheFeedCIC   Facebook: thefeedCIC

The paying customer is always right

Bob and a shy Michael with commissioned window boxes

Bob and a shy Michael with commissioned window boxes

At The Repair Shed in Hemel Hempstead we’ve spent the best part of the year learning an important lesson.

We’ve been making products for sale from reclaimed materials, primarily old pallets. The products ideas – for homes and gardens – have come from many sources, including members of the Shed, their families, and of course, the internet. The result has been a range of traditional and more unusual items.

We’ve had fun making them and we’ve put them ‘out there’ – to research the market – online through Etsy (a craft-based selling site), on our webpage [https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/repair-shed-shop-2] and on Facebook [www.facebook.com/TheRepairShed]. Over the summer we’ve also been at outdoor events – country fairs, street craft markets and charity events. The face-to-face contact and feedback has been valuable, if somewhat disheartening.

We’ve learnt that it’s time to stop making products that we want to sell and to start making products that people want to buy. Online sales have been spectacularly unsuccessful and sales on stalls have not been much better.

a less shy Michael

A less shy Michael

Where we have had success is in taking commissions. Some are quite wacky – a ‘cat kennel’ a milk crate with a roof, and a sweet cart (as in sweets to suck and chew, not a hostess trolley for desserts) as well as more conventional items such as window boxes, and bug houses.

A commission is, of course, a firm sale at an agreed price (but costing is not always easy when you’ve never made the item before) so they’re a much better business proposition. And once made and photographed the one-off product can be promoted and might well become a source of further sales.

So we’re pushing for commissions and hoping the next stage will be repeat commissions of different items.  There are various statistics about how much more expensive it is to get a new customer than to keep an existing one (I’ve seen anything from 4 – 7 times more) but the detail is unimportant. Regular and repeat paying customers are the lifeblood of many businesses both big and small.

I was reminded about this when I heard that the landlady of a local pub knows pretty exactly how much each regular drinker is worth to her business. She can look down the bar and put a price above each head – £3,000 a year, £5,000, £10,000 … (yes, that’s a lot of beer!) And she looks after them like VIPs because they are; without them she’d close. This five star treatment was confirmed when a friend went to the pub for a meal with a small group of friends. When they asked if the noisy drinkers at the bar could be quietened down a bit, the landlady politely told them “sorry I can’t – they’re my regulars.”

Testing the patient’s patience – customer care lessons from a brush with the NHS

NHStressI was recently referred by my GP to a big, fairly-local hospital for an ‘urgent appointment’ defined as one within two weeks.

The Health Centre’s referral letter included information about why I’d been referred urgently to the hospital. The explanation included ‘The two week appointment system was introduced so that any patient with symptoms that might indicate cancer, or a serious condition, could be seen be seen by a specialist as quickly as possible.’ It reassured me that it didn’t mean I had cancer but that ‘early diagnosis and early access to treatment is shown to improve health outcomes’.

Customer care lesson 1 – Giving clear information in unemotional language is generally a good policy but, just as you can’t help think about blue elephants if someone tells you not to think about blue elephants, it does get the customer/ patient thinking…

Customer care lesson 2 – If you flag something up as ‘fast-track’ and ‘urgent’ and say that having an appointment within two weeks is ‘very important’ – your subsequent customer service should reflect that sense of urgency (without panic of course) for reassurance if nothing else.

When it comes to health, people, particular men, are as likely to be panicked into inaction as action!

10 calls on 6 different numbers…

So the day after receiving my referral letter, I phoned the number given to make my ‘urgent appointment’. I’m told I can only call between 2pm and 4.30pm, and when I do phone – and on four occasions after that – I get a recorded message asking me to leave my details and they will get back to me.

I leave my details on three separate dates over the next 10 days without response and call the Health Centre (the number on the referral letter having referred  me to a second Health Centre number) to ask for advice.

I’m given the main switchboard at the hospital and the switchboard gives me two new numbers to try (note: they don’t transfer me). I call the first of the two numbers to be told that the number the Health Centre gave me is not recognised by the overworked-sounding-voice I talk to and he eventually establishes that I’m even then on the wrong number because I’m a new patient.

Customer care lesson 3 – If you build up goodwill by having human beings on the end of a telephone line you need to make sure those people give the impression they’re bothered about you, and are enabled to give accurate information. Otherwise that customer/ patients goodwill goes up in a puff of smoke – and it takes a lot of effort to claw it back.

And finally…

I’m given another new number (the sixth) and finally speak to someone who cannot locate my referral details but takes my number to call me back. I get a voicemail about an hour later telling me ‘we cannot give you a date, we’ll call you when we have additional dates for the clinic.’

Customer care lesson 4 – It’s the old marketing adage ‘under-promise and over-provide’. Try to make it as easy as possible for your customer to get an average service, then surprise and delight them by exceeding their expectations.

I’ve always suspected the NHS is in crisis (no fault of the majority of health professionals who work in it – my wife is one of them!) but my recent experience is in danger of confirming that conclusion.

In a day, the ‘two week timeframe for an appointment’ (and I think this is two weeks for being seen, rather than getting a date to be seen) will be up. I hope what it fast turning into a health scare story has a happy ending.

For a blog with further lessons in customer care, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/im-just-putting-you-on-hold

Enterprise essential – Two out of three

Printers say you can’t have speed, quality and low prices; you can have any two of those, but not all three. The same applies to many other businesses. Decide which two are the priorities for you when putting your offer together – offering all three is the road to ruin!


Slowing the spin about social enterprise  

Before Christmas I wrote about resisting the temptation to sanctify social entrepreneurs and I think the same goes for over-selling social enterprise.

IMG_3712As a social enterprise supporter of the past 15 years or so, I’m naturally delighted when the sector gets a positive profile-raising plug, but I’m equally dismayed when someone goes over the top about what social enterprise has achieved. And the praise is usually coupled with a side-swipe at mainstream business.

It’s all too easy to cast the private sector as the villain and social enterprises – assuming that implies the business is ‘not-for-private-profit’ – as the answer we’ve all been waiting for to treat society’s ills. Reality, of course, is much more complex – there are good and bad private sector and social enterprise businesses, and both may have social impact (ref David Floyd’s social enterprise myth-buster).

I also think scale is relevant. Big isn’t automatically better, but until social enterprises (individually or collectively) make enough difference to enough people’s lives, I believe they won’t offer a realistic alternative to mainstream business models – holding the moral high ground will never be enough.  This isn’t to knock small scale, community-rooted enterprise – it can demonstrate a better way of doing business – but we shouldn’t pretend it’s going to change the world until it’s more ubiquitous and until many more people benefit.

In an imperfect world, I’m happy to credit a large scale solution to a social problem rather than condemn it outright for being big and motivated by making a profit for shareholders. What I’m not happy about is mainstream contractors (they all seem to have numbers in their names these days) providing public services badly and passing themselves off as social businesses. We know who they are…

There’s a well-worn saying in customer care – ‘under-promise and over-provide’. In other words, say you’ll deliver an order within a week and have it with your customer the next day, not the other way around.  The same should go for social enterprise which has a rich heritage that goes back at least 165 years to the Rochdale Pioneers – founding fathers of the co-operative movement.

Recent difficulties for the Co-op Bank show how easily reputations for ‘better business’ can be shaken, so it’s more important than ever to manage expectations about what social enterprise can achieve. If we get carried away with our own publicity and hold it up as the solution to all economic, social and environmental ills, and it’s then found wanting, we could see customers taking their business back to mainstream suppliers – condemning social enterprise as ‘all mouth and no trousers’.


Slowing the spin about social entrepreneurshttps://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/slowing-the-spin-about-social-entrepreneurs

David Floyd social enterprise mythbusterhttp://www.theguardian.com/social-enterprise-network/2013/oct/03/private-sector-social-enterprise-ethics

A shorter version of this blog first appeared on the Social Enterprise East of England blog site