Food, restaurants, branding and that finicky sequence of emotions we come to recollect as experience.
Just picture the scene…
A lovely evening in one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals, the golden evening glow of the northern summer sun glinting off lazy waves in the nearby harbour.
A highly recommended and well-rated restaurant.
A group of friends, eager to have a great meal and catch up on one others’ latest adventures.In essence: the perfect ingredients for a fantastic experience.
In reality: the setting for what would be later remembered as The Sardinner.
And just to jump to conclusions: will you be serving your customers a fantastic experience or a Sardinner today?
But first: the story.
A surprising dinner
Upon entering the restaurant the group of friends was greeted by cosy interiors, a waitress eccentric enough to become pleasantly memorable and a nice aperitif to lubricate the conversation.
Come food decision time, the group trusted the restaurant’s standing, and decided to opt for the chef’s “surprise menu”, which promised a curated sequence of 5 dishes, each accompanied by a dedicated choice of wine.
To be fair to the restaurant the quality of the food across these 5 moments of truth in the evening’s culinary customer journey was in line with the high expectations of the group, but it was Food Moment #2 that ended up sealing the evening’s fate.
Before we talk any further about Food Moment #2 I’ll be quick to point out that a “surprise menu” has of course to account for a desire to experiment, and possibly even push the boundaries of one’s palate. That said though as Food Moment #2 plates were slowly being distributed around the table the nature of the “surprise” on everyone’s face was fairly unanimous and easy to decode: disgust, tinged with a hint of curiosity. The plating was objectively unattractive: an elongated, slightly translucent string of a material that was hard to classify, surrounded by a choreographic arrangement of Master Chef vegetables.
Food Moment #2 achieved through its sheer appearance the seemingly impossible: it changed the mood of the entire table.
While someone was heard suggesting to wait for the waitress’ colourful description of the dish, others advocated against it, to avoid being even more put off by finding out what the translucent worm actually was.
Food Moment #2 turned out to be — as you might have guessed at this stage — an unusually large, cold slice of sardine.
The group stood up to the challenge as any respectable food adventurer would, and proceeded to attempt rebalancing visual disappointment with an otherwise pleasant tasting experience… but even those hopes had to unfortunately come to terms with the gummy bear texture of the fish, and its polarising flavour.
The rest of the meal was luckily less traumatic. Food Moment #3, #4 and #5 brought the group back into a space of culinary comfort, if not delight, and the complementary wine selection progressively helped to get everyone back into a positive state of mind. Curiously enough though Food Moment #2 became in many ways the theme for the rest of the evening. Every new dish that followed it was greeted with an equal amount of curiosity and mild concern, and jokes abounded, as people compared the texture and flavour of their current dish to the disconcerting salted rubbery feel of the sardine.
All in all the meal would be recalled by most in the group as a pleasant experience, but even days later the one memorable moment that people kept bringing up in Whatsapp conversations was the expression on their respective faces as #2 plates were being distributed around the table.
The “Chef Surprise Menu” came to be remembered as The Sardinner.
Of restaurants and Service Design
What conclusions to draw from the anecdote above?
Restaurants have long been a favorite reference for experience and service designers alike.
- The before-during-after customer journey nature of any restaurant experience.
- The sequencing, coherency and masterful choreography of every touchpoint, be it physical space, menu design, waiter tone of voice and of course sheer quality of the food.
- The sophisticated orchestration of front and back stage interactions required to align kitchen preparation and dish delivery to customers’ own preferred eating rhythms.
- The progressive amalgamation of rational and visceral customer micro-impressions all along the arc of the entire experience, where every moment of truth can reset expectations and derail perceptions.
Restaurants incapsulate in a compressed timeframe and space many of the challenges of more complex human-designed experiential systems, and hence give designers ample opportunities to draw metaphorical parallels between the quality of culinary experiences and those of products and services in other sectors and at a much larger scale.
In this specific case the key insight was how a single but particularly negative moment of truth can have devastating effects on the perception of the overall experience, and hence of the brand promise it is meant to brings to life.
We’ve all been there sooner or later:
- The airline that left us stranded at the gate, telling us to wait patiently as their own mobile app had already informed us that the flight had been canceled.
- The insurance company that did not refund damages to beloved possessions we had paid a high premium to protect.
- The internet service provider that forced us to solve home connectivity issues by navigating ill-conceived self-help digital systems.
- The financial service provider whose mobile banking app made it difficult to transfer money during an emergency.
These are all Food Moment #2 instances, a negative experiential overflow marring current perceptions and future expectations of services offered by that brand. In other words: Sardinners.
And hence back to question: will your customers be having a great experience or a Sardinner today? How to ensure the former, and not the latter outcome?
There is of course no silver bullet answer to such a question.
Just like any successful restaurant, brands have to master the art of choreographing living service experiences across their touchpoints over time, while also carefully orchestrating the human and digital systems that are responsible for the delivery of those very experiences at the right time for the right audience.
In other words brands need to rewire with people at the heart, whether it is their customers or their employees, and ensure that any point of contact with their advertising, products or services coherently delivers on their promise with authenticity and relevance.
In other words still brands have to think experience first, and put people at the center of everything they think and do.
3 suggestions for how to put people at the center of experience strategies
Here are 3 suggestions for brands keen to achieve the apparently simple but deceivingly ambitious goal of putting people at the center of their experience strategy.
1. Be and feel human: think relationally, not transactionally.
It is easy in this age of continuous digital connection to fall into the trap of thinking about every customer interaction as a possible opportunity to sell, up-sell or cross-sell. Such a transactional way of thinking leaves very little room for people to forgive brands when they happen to make mistakes or let their customers down.
Brands need instead to adopt a relational approach, building trusted relationships over a mutual value exchange. Thinking relationally implies being generous with attention and care, but also knowing when to avoid interrupting people with unwanted messages and suggestions. Relational brands are aware and self-aware of the role they play in people’s lives, and are unafraid to embrace silence as an expression of confidence in the rapport they have built with their audiences.
Relational, human brands can count on a positive experiential overflow that makes them resilient to the odd misunderstanding or breakdown that all long-term relationships are sooner or later affected by.
2. Be and feel flexible: constantly adapt and evolve.
Brands can no longer afford to behave like ivory tower megaphones, blurting immutable messages at regular intervals to a crowd of faithful believers.
People expect brands to behave like life partners that will grow with and for them over time.
To grow, evolve and adapt brands have to know what is meant to last and what is meant to flex and flow in their architectures. They have to create a shared space where their values, mission and promise can dynamically engage with people’s needs, desires and dreams. This shared space is the experiential manifestation of a brand’s personality, and it should adapt and evolve around the mindsets that people adopt when interacting with its products and services.
A brand’s experience should thus not be statically conceived as a discrete set of a interactions with an equally discrete set of touchpoints, but rather as a space that’s dynamically defined by those very interactions, constantly flowing around people’s ever-changing liquid expectations.
3. Be and feel relevant: add value to people’s lives.
Today’s customers constantly live a paradox of choice. Digital technologies have made it seemingly possible to have access to personalised experiences, products and services that were once only available to affluent consumers. This exponential increase in our range of choices has not necessarily coincided with our level of perceived happiness. In today’s markets where options abound and purchase decisions can be instantly fulfilled brands struggle to be and stay relevant for the people once known as their customers. In a world of infinte, instant choice brand loyalty is no longer a relevant construct.
In this new normal it is essential for brands to create opportunities for people to feel relevant. This can be achieved by co-creating with them a shared sense of purpose, a space that customers with the same value system can feel a sense of belonging for, and then rewarding them for their contribution.
Brands that generate mutual value and stay relevant to their audiences will once again create emotional padding that will not just lead to higher equity, but also to customers that will keep choosing them over the competition.
Concluding, sort of.
We’ve gone from semi-serious to serious, hopefully stimulating a few reflections along the way around the meaningful role that brands can still play in people’s lives.
By being human, flexible and relevant they can hope to offer a noticeably better experience, creating the conditions for people to choose their products and services over those of the competition.
And they can hope to resiliently thrive… even in the case of a Sardinner-class customer experience disaster.