Sweat the Small Stuff

Sweat the small stuff by Ann Elliott

I spent two days last week visiting pubs on behalf of one of our clients (sometimes I think I have the best job in the world) putting myself in the shoes (and minds) of its customers. The client has a strategy brief that can only be answered by understanding customer motivations and behaviours (as most strategy briefs have to) and much of that can only be appreciated by sitting where they sit and doing what they do.

During the day I would try to understand “why has that couple left their home, got in their car, spent money and then sat in silence in this pub?” or “why has that group of women come to this pub rather than the coffee shop down the road?” or “why has that man come here to nurse a single pint during the course of a lunchtime?” As an overview, I want to try to understand customer motivations for coming to the pub and appreciate what they expect, want and need from that visit.

They’ll all have different reasons for their choices, which we’ll pick up in this particular project through focus groups and face-to-face interviews as well as pub visits. While quantitative data is imperative, nothing beats listening to customers, seeing their reaction to suggestions and watching their gestures before exploring the detail. It’s also vital to appreciate what guests don’t say – and to listen to their silences.

However, not much beats getting out and about and watching things happen in situ – I love it. Watching what happens when customers are eating and drinking out has become even more imperative these days when customers have so much choice where they spend their money and time. For many, a meal out can be the equivalent of feeding the family from Monday to Friday, buying shoes for their kids, ordering a dress from Asos or starting to save for Christmas. If their time out doesn’t represent value compared with what else they could have done with their money, they feel guilty and angry at the venue. It’s a lose-lose.

Those value-for-money perceptions are usually based on many different elements rather than a single defining moment. When in one of the pubs I asked for two coffees and a tea. “We haven’t any coffee, the machine is broken,” came the reply. I asked for instant coffee. “No, I told you the machine is broken.” With that the woman behind the bar turned her back on me and went to talk to the machine engineer.

Written down, that exchange doesn’t look too bad but face to face her attitude was one of “I don’t really give a monkeys what you want”. If that exchange had been part of a well-earned evening out I chose above buying essentials it would have drained the emotional bank balance I had with that pub and forced it to work extremely hard during the rest of my visit to rebuild it (if, indeed, that were possible).

Some pubs and restaurants, multi-site and independent, don’t get this. They don’t appreciate the terms of their contract with guests. They don’t understand their customers and what the quid pro quo is for each of them. Neither do they know what levers they have to pull (or not pull) on the tiniest element of their offer to disappoint or delight customers.

The tiny, imperceptible things matter – a crisp packet in the car park, a peeling sign on the door, tone of voice, having to ask for a menu, no crayons for the kids. I could go on but you know what I mean. It’s about sweating the small stuff because getting the small stuff wrong means customers walk (and talk). That’s where watching and listening to customers, objectively, is so powerful.

By Ann Elliott.