Lately there has been a lot written about companies attempting to improve their business by upgrading the consumer experience. Especially retailers threatened by on-line shopping, and restaurant brands suddenly faced with declining demand. Some companies already have it ingrained in their DNA, like Ritz-Carlton Hotels, Nordstrom, or Chick-fil-A. Other companies have to revise their culture to improve their level of customer care.
The companies that are the best at it usually end up saying that hospitality is not trainable. They tell us that they have to look for people who naturally have a caring instinct and recruit employees or franchisees based on that, and then create a culture around them that encourages that instinct.
Our new favorite example can be found in the actions of a franchisee that recently opened his first Golden Corral in San Bernardino, California.
David Xiang is from China. He has lived in the US for six years and without going into details, David had a vision of opening restaurants in Southern California. As (our) luck would have it, during his first visit to a Golden Corral he made up his mind that we would be the brand to fulfill his vision.
Two years later, not long by California standards, David opened his San Bernardino Golden Corral. Unfortunately, it opened in the middle of a week of torrential rain and flooding. Hard to imagine that after the longest drought in California history, he would happen to pick the week that drought abruptly ended.
Opening a new restaurant is stressful enough but when the downpour started, guests who had lined up out the door took to squatting under the refrigerated food storage trailer, parked alongside the restaurant, to escape the drenching storm. The management team was frantic. Nobody could believe the commitment that these guests had made to keep their place in line to experience the new Golden Corral - despite the weather.
David, without hesitation, got into his car and went to Costco, Walmart and Sam’s Club and bought every umbrella they had. Surprised that they had any (they hadn’t sold an umbrella in years) he managed to buy 70 in all. Upon arriving back at the restaurant he began handing one out to every customer in line or under the trailer. No questions asked; no demand to return it; just a sincere gesture of hospitality. When one of his managers asked how he planned on getting the umbrellas back, David answered, “I’m pretty sure we’ll get most of them back but honestly, I don’t care. Think of what these people will say when they talk about their first experience at Golden Corral.”
The observation that he didn’t care if he got the umbrellas back because of the impression that the gesture would leave on each one of the customers, was brilliant. As a practical matter, the umbrellas weren’t that expensive and he likely saved most if not all the sales from the customers who would have given up and didn’t because they now had protection from the rain. In fact, he did get most of the umbrellas back to be used for the rest of the day by other patrons.
This story is not one of corporate hospitality routinely saying “my pleasure” in response to every thank you. This was spontaneous, authentically engaging with the customer to solve their problem without overthinking it.
The umbrella is a perfect metaphor for spontaneous hospitality. Once the opportunity presents itself figure out how to solve the problem or enhance the experience and go get the umbrella. And once you hand the umbrella out, don’t ask for it back.
If the organization encourages a culture of hospitality and then engages employees and franchisees who have hospitality in their genes, the revised culture will emerge.