Our Team Members are our best Guests. Those individuals that are actually engaging our guests on a daily basis absolutely must be enthusiastic about giving great guest service and fully engaged. When a team member starts to check out, every aspect of the business that they are involved in will begin to suffer. One of the very most valuable things that we can do as business owners is to invest a lot of time and energy into developing a winning culture. People who feel appreciated, empowered to make important decisions and overall invested in the company as a whole will contribute more to the company over time. They will invest more of their skills and energy, producing better results and increasing efficiency. When systems run smoothly and work is more enjoyable, the ground is more fertile for giving guests a great experience. Conversely, if the experience for an employee is less than desirable, if that employee feels less than enthusiastic about their work, that will translate to the customer in some way, be it subtle or direct. There are two mottos I follow and for good reason: “Grow the People, Grow the Business.” And “Happy Team Members Make Happy Guests.”
As part of our series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Provance, owner of GP Hospitality Partners LLC, a full-service restaurant and hospitality consulting firm. In addition to being a consulting partner for Everbowl, Southern California’s fastest growing fast casual chain, he owns several restaurants in the San Diego area and serves as a principal consultant and advisor for restaurants across the country.
Greg lives in San Marcos, CA with his beautiful wife, two strapping young lads and a cat. He has committed his career to serving the community and businesses of San Diego and beyond.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
And thanks for the opportunity! I started in the entertainment business as a professional actor and musician. And like any starving artist, I used the restaurant industry to pay the bills so I could keep auditioning. It went fairly well for some time, but when I started sprouting kids, I decided to take the restaurant industry a little more seriously as a career. It really was the only other skill that I had developed along the way.
I had the great fortune of living in amazing cities like New York and Los Angeles. I think it was the experiences that I had living and working in those cities that really grew my passion for hospitality. I have also always been kind of an entrepreneur at heart and so I was never really satisfied with just having a management position. I always strived for more but I also knew that I didn’t just want to own a single restaurant.
Back when craft cocktails were sort of new in Los Angeles, I started a cocktail design company and was able to create custom bars and serve creative cocktails to celebrities and began shooting pilots for TV shows around cocktails, allowing me to combine all of my passions into one.
Later, after working in upper management with some amazing restaurant groups, I gained a deep understanding of operations and how to translate great guest experiences into profitability and scale. I now own my own consulting firm and I use all of the skills I have developed over the years to assist others in building their restaurant businesses.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
How many pages can I use for this one? I have learned so many lessons by making so very many mistakes. I am grateful for every failure in that way. One that comes to mind is when I was creating a bar for a very well-known artist and I was setting up for the event at her home. One of the team members I had hired was giving me some suggestions and I snapped at her, letting her know that I had been doing this my whole life and I didn’t need her telling me what was best in this situation. I had let my ego get in the way of my principles and she quit on the spot, leaving me to almost blow the event for not being prepared on time. Had I listened and maybe taken her suggestion (or maybe not but used that as an opportunity to train her), things would have gone much more smoothly. The lesson I learned here was to always remain humble and to always remember that I am only as good as those who are there to support me and my vision.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many people that I could think for helping me get to where I am today. Most of them would probably never know they had a hand in shaping my future. I think one of the most important things I never consciously done to help my career has been to make a concerted effort to learn as much as I possibly can from every leader I have come in contact with. But if I have to think one person or group of people it would have to be my experience working with the Cohn restaurant group. This organization taught me how to walk the walk. They take the art of hospitality incredibly seriously and every restaurant that they build is built around an obsession with sincere, heartfelt guest service. In my book, I write a lot about how to actualize hospitality in everything that we do. I was so fortunate to have worked closely with so many great leaders in that organization. My philosophy on how to approach business and ultimately how to operate a successful restaurant comes largely in part to my experience with David and Lesley Cohn.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?
There is a great quote by Maya Angelo that always stays with me. And that is:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
This idea is one of the most powerful, yet most underused concepts in business. All too often, it is tempting to focus on numbers and profitability first before delivering the great experience. If this is how we are looking at things, we are getting it backwards. We must always first focus on the experience in an effort to build trust and relationships with those that we serve. It is those relationships that ultimately feed and nourish the business to success.
The simple fact is that if many, many people come to visit my restaurant once and only once, I will constantly be fighting to bring more and more people to me and I will ultimately exhaust that resource. But if I can bring those same guests back again and again, I now have a loyal following which will not only feed my business on a regular basis, but they will act as ambssadors of my brand bringing new business in and the cycle continues. This is the way to build sustainable growth. And it starts with a relationship built on trust.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
I think that it is not often made a priority not because of poor intention. In my experience, most business owners start their businesses with a sincere desire to serve others and to make some sort of difference in their industry. They work tirelessly to build initially something that has a beautiful brand, sends a message and represents some type of feeling or expression that is important to them. The problem is not so much in the concept in my view, but in the execution. Once the brand is built, the business is launched and things start moving, it is all too easy to get caught up in the day to day. Problems must be solved, fires must be put out and staff must be managed. All of these are difficult challenges. In an effort to keep all of the balls in the air, priority of building an effective culture is often set aside in lieu of other pursuits. Sometimes the stress of turning a profit is also a burden. Building a culture and focusing on training our teams to deliver amazing guest service takes time, patience and consistent effort. We don’t often see the fruits of that labor immediately. In corporate environments, there’s often a lot of pressure to produce results within a short timeframe. The tendency is to try to get the sale, or rush to turn a profit by raising prices or other means. This is why I think sometimes this priority gets lost.
Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?
That’s a great question and yes, I actually do believe that more competition does present the need to find ways to stand out ahead of the competition. Competing on price, unique products or services, location, etc. all have their part, but as competition grows those solutions become less viable. The one thing that we always have control of, that one thing that can truly set us apart from the rest is the experience that we give when someone enters our business. I go back to that Maya Angelou quote. If we leave someone feeling something about our business than we have truly left a mark. We all know that people make decisions, including buying decisions based on emotion. If we can tap into the emotion of everyone that comes to our doors in some meaningful way then we are beginning to make a deep connection that will bring them back for more of that experience. I think the more competition that is out there, the more there is a need to give people unique experiences.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
Wowing a guest is usually does not take much. Often it is just that “little something extra” that makes a huge difference in an experience. One thing I’ve always loved to do is to bring kids back into the kitchen to make a dessert for themselves and their parents. This works great on special occasions to have kids make a birthday surprise for mom. I’ve spent a lot of time in fine dining and it’s not often that guests are invited into the kitchen for any reason. Just being back there gives everyone a feeling of being super VIP. I’ve had parents come back and take pictures of the kids while they’re making the desserts and when other guests see the kids walking back from the kitchen with what they’ve made they are often wowed themselves. It’s just such a great energy in the dining room with that type of thing is going on and I’ve had guests come back year after year to celebrate and talk about that experience. I mean think about it. The executive chef or the general manager comes to your table invite your kids back to the kitchen in a high-end restaurant out of the blue. That’s me making of a memorable experience.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
Let’s talk about Mateo. He is a kid that I brought to the kitchen for his 6th birthday to make dessert. Every year for the next seven years, Mateo would return with his family and each year he made something new to present. One year, the chef gave him his own chef coat that he would wear upon each return: that is until he grew out of it. This honorary chef was and continues to be a part of the restaurant’s family and even its culture. That is what makes these experiences more than just a night out. It’s a lifetime of memories and true, meaningful relationships that are created.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.
I outline all of these and more in detail in my book BUTTS in SEATS: How to create raving fans who come back again and again, so I will recap some of what I see as the most critical aspects of a Wow! experience.
- Our Team Members are our best Guests. Those individuals that are actually engaging our guests on a daily basis absolutely must be enthusiastic about giving great guest service and fully engaged. When a team member starts to check out, every aspect of the business that they are involved in will begin to suffer. One of the very most valuable things that we can do as business owners is to invest a lot of time and energy into developing a winning culture. People who feel appreciated, empowered to make important decisions and overall invested in the company as a whole will contribute more to the company over time. They will invest more of their skills and energy, producing better results and increasing efficiency. When systems run smoothly and work is more enjoyable, the ground is more fertile for giving guests a great experience. Conversely, if the experience for an employee is less than desirable, if that employee feels less than enthusiastic about their work, that will translate to the customer in some way, be it subtle or direct. There are two mottos I follow and for good reason: “Grow the People, Grow the Business.” And “Happy Team Members Make Happy Guests.”
- Live the Mission. Whenever I am speaking to or training a group of business leaders, one question I often ask is how many of them can confidently recite their business mission statement. Depending on the group, usually about half will identify as being able to do this. Out of those, I will then ask how many of them can say honestly that each and every one of their employees can do the same. Very few if any will confidently agree that this is the case with their organization. Out of those I will ask if every team member understands their role in delivering on that mission each and every day. Occasionally, I have some very enthusiastic leaders who are proud to talk about how this is in fact part of their culture. And they should be proud of that. The fact is, many businesses have a written mission statement. It may be posted on the walls and written into the company literature. But I caution that the mission is and should be more than just a written statement. It should be an actionable compass through which all decisions are made and every action is aligned with. The mission should be focused on those the business serves and nothing more. Living the mission means that the culture is rich with and highly focused on serving the needs of the guest. It is simply “how we do things” and will ensure that our team members are always prepared and empowered to give a Wow! experience. At one of my restaurants, Pesto Italian Craft Kitchen in San Diego has a mission statement that reads: “Make Every Guest a Regular, Make Every Dish with Love.” You can bet that each Team Member know this mission statement by heart and understands how they contribute to its daily execution. At the end of the day, if we have accomplished this, we will continue to grow and give Wow! guest experiences.
- Raise the Bar. In business, I always feel that I am in competition with myself. I am constantly looking for ways to learn, grow and improve upon the product and service that I offer. By raising the level of standards that I expect from myself, I tend to intuitively raise the level of experience I give to my guests. One thing I learned early on (the hard way I might add) is to never compromise on quality of product or level of service. Most businesses will tout their high-quality standards yet many will fall short in the reality of the day to day. If we are not fully and sincerely committed to providing an impeccable experience, then we will be left behind by the rest of the industry and certainly be seen as uncaring and uncaring is not the label that we should seek among our peers and the public. By not tending to details and committing to providing impeccable product and service, we are sending that exact message. Put simply, we must raise the bar for ourselves so that those we serve get far more than they expected to receive.
- Timely Service. When I was young, I would beg my mom to let me order a book or a game or some other fun time from a mail in catalog. These paper catalogs were magic to me. I would leaf through the pages, check the box to indicate which item I wanted to order and have my mom write a check, which she would insert into the envelope to be mailed off. Once the envelope was in the mail it was time for me to wait 4 to 6 weeks for those mysterious forces to get to work and ensure that the package would someday arrive. Today, it is hard to imagine having to wait even more than several days for something I ordered to show up. Heck, I can order almost anything on Amazon and receive it by tomorrow, sometimes the very same day! This is the culture we have all become used to. We don’t want to wait for anything. One of the main reasons Amazon has become so successful is the huge convenience factor that it offers. I want it all and I want it now. And I can get it with a few clicks and a credit card. So how are we as business owners to compete? While we may not be able to build an infrastructure as robust as Amazon, but we can certainly let our clients, customers and guests know we care by responding to their needs quickly and efficiently. Usually, when someone needs an answer or needs to be heard about a particular issue, a quick response lets them know that we truly are there to support them. When too much time goes by, or when someone is left waiting for too long, no matter what the environment, they begin to form the opinion that we simply do not care about them. It is an emotional response to a very real situation and we must be mindful of this when serving others. Addressing needs quickly and with care is very important and even if we cannot effectively deliver by freight overnight, we should strive to respond as quickly as possible to every need and seek ways to become more and more efficient within our own means.
- Give them more than they could possibly pay for. I see every guest relationship as an investment. Once someone engages our business, whether it be by walking through the door or otherwise contacting us about our product or service, we now have the incredible responsibility of beginning to return on that investment. The fact is, they have now invested some of their time and energy into us. Note, I have not said that they have paid us money. The relationship often starts far before any money is ever exchanged. And if we wait until money is exchanged to start returning on what they have already invested, we risk losing that business forever. Yet even after, (and especially after) a transaction is made, we must continue to deliver value. Imagine if we are able to deliver ten times the value that was paid for? How many friends with that person share their experience with? Imagine how easy it would be to sell to them again and again if everyone felt like we were getting the deal of the century. I’m not saying we should give away our product or services for less than they are valued at. I am saying we should find ways to add more and more value to the experience. The fact is that people will happily pay more for an experience so long as that experience makes them feel ten times better for having invested in us.
Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?
Everything I mentioned above is designed for people to talk positively about our business out in the world. If we hit these points consistently, we will have a far better chance of that being the case. That said, one way to leverage the great experience of others is to simply ask them to tell friends about what they experience with us. Powerful platforms like Yelp can be a cringeworthy service to some business owners, but can also serve to be a great point of leverage if engaged properly. One of the things that I always train my teams to do is to recognize when someone has complemented our service and then to simply ask them if they would mind posting that experience on Yelp or social media for others to enjoy. Now that experience has a way of being amplified beyond the four walls. When this is done consistently, the word gets out about how Wow! experiences are being had at my place and others want to come by to see for themselves.
My particular expertise is in retail, so I’d like to ask a question about that. Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
Funny that I used Amazon as an example above so that still applies, but to emphasize the point in this context…
I come from the entertainment and hospitality world in which we have a unique opportunity to create personal, multi-sensory experiences that are lasting and impactful. E-commerce and retail may seem to have a disadvantage in this way, yet I would suggest that there may be overlooked opportunities to connect with consumers in a way that taps into their emotional needs. People like to buy from those they feel an emotional connection to. Whatever we can do to create a Wow! experience through every interaction, we should strive to do this. Perhaps we can consider how our websites engage visitors, or our customer service process. I have dealt with some companies in my buying experience that do things well and some not so. For instance, I recently bought something from a company selling on Amazon that I was not happy with. I returned the item. Once the return was initiated, within one hour, I received a phone call from the owner of that company asking how they could make it right. I was absolutely blown away that this was even possible, as I usually just handle through Amazon and move on. I ended up instead of returning for a refund, having another item shipped from that seller and I will happily buy from them again should the need arise. That was a Wow! experience and certainly out of the norm. I would encourage ANY business, whether it be a used tire shop or a massage therapist, a tax advisor or a clothing boutique to find ways to break the norm and go above and beyond to connect with those they serve.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
That is a great question and I love how it is framed. The movement would be to teach true hospitality and servant leadership as tools to improve, grow and scale businesses. I work specifically in the restaurant space typically, but ANY business can benefit from following and implementing these principles. I truly believe in the power of these concepts so long as they are implemented and executed with consistency.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I can be reached in several ways:
Link to access a copy of my book:
Connect with me:
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
THANK YOU for the incredible opportunity!