Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Getting Zinged

I just returned from a business trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I had a chance to visit a legendary icon of customer service: Zingerman's Deli.

If you aren't familiar with Zingerman's, they stand as an example of a small business that has built a national reputation for its business model and service quality. They have written a book about their customer service approach, were featured as the cover story in a major business magazine, and even have a training subsidiary (ZingTrain) that teaches their secrets to other businesses.

So I was expecting a large, gleaming facilty as I drove up and down Detroit Street looking for it - not realizing that I was whizzing right past a small, unassuming corner deli, plus a converted house next door (Zingerman's Next Door) with seating, a gelato stand, and their training operation. You could probably fit the whole complex in my backyard.

But here is the important point: eating at this tiny deli, with its convoluted ordering system (you order your sandwich, go to a back counter to pay, then wait next door with your stamped receipt until they deliver your food), is a *wonderful* experience. If everyone ran their small business like Zingerman's, the world would be a much nicer (and in this case, tastier) place. Here are some of the lessons I learned from my lunch there:

1. Quality matters. Zingerman's is not cheap, particularly by the standards of a college town in Michigan - a small Reuben will set you back almost 11 bucks, nearly twice what I paid in Manhattan last month. But oh my my, what a Reuben. Delicious corned beef that melts in your mouth, with a tasty dressing on fresh grilled rye bread. That's why the place was packed, even in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon. When you are the very best at something, people will come in droves with their 11 bucks in hand, myself included.

2. Customer experience matters. Zingerman's prides itself on its service, and you can feel it in the air as soon as you walk in the door. People make eye contact, smile at you, offer you samples, call you by name, and act like they are happy you are there. Simple communications skills that make people's day, one lunch at a time.

You know that I normally see good service as a matter of skills, not "attitude." To me, a place like Zingerman's is a great example of where people are well trained in how to interact with their customers, and that in turn becomes an attitude. When you see it in action, it's magical. Which leads me to my next point:

3) Keeping employees happy matters. Do you know what the single biggest problem most small businesses have is? They don't know how to treat the people who work for them. So you end up with disengaged people who provide "I'm sorry sir, we can't do that" service, hate their jobs, and run their businesses into the ground.

As I was reading an article about Zingerman's on the wall - waiting for their one bathroom to open up - it mentioned one manager who attended one of their training courses, immediately quit his job to come work for them, and said, "I'd be a dishwasher to work at this place." When you have that kind of loyalty and camraderie, it will infect everyone who does business with you.

I came away from my visit to Zingerman's full, happy, and flush with the knowledge that the right quality and service can make any business succeed beyond its wildest dreams - even a tiny corner deli with expensive sandwiches, cramped space, and a single one-person bathroom. I'm already looking forward to my next Reuben there.

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