In Front of the House: Restaurant Manners, Misbehaviors & Secrets, Jeff Benjamin, Marc Vetri’s partner in what is quickly becoming an empire of renowned restaurants, has written an entertaining memoir of life in the hospitality industry. But, for those outside his industry, Benjamin’s musings can also serve as a practical and philosophical blueprint for how to improve the customer experience in any and all realms.
This week, I’ve sent copies of Benjamin’s book to both Mayor Kenney and Council President Darrell Clarke because, reading it, one could only wish that our elected officials thought as deeply about the quality of their taxpayer’s experience with the city as Benjamin thinks about things from his customer’s point of view. I’ve sent the book to Kenney and Clarke not to embarrass or hector them, but to try and legitimately help them establish a culture of putting each citizen first through all levels of city government. Here at The Citizen, we’ve been investigating City Hall’s customer satisfaction efforts of late, going so far as to send out teams of mystery shoppers to report back on how their city government has treated them. We’re doing this because it sure would be cool to love our city government as much as we love our city.
Last week, I caught up with Benjamin at his Lo Spiedo restaurant at the Navy Yard. Over some deliciously smoked chicken wings and ribs, we compared notes on how a focus on the principles of hospitality can make Philadelphia better. Shortly after sitting down with his back to a window, Benjamin inadvertently illustrated how customer satisfaction is always top of his mind. He put his hand at the base of the window behind him several times, before asking: “You feel a draft here?” Later, as if to himself, he said: “I wonder if we didn’t seal this correctly.” Still later, not able to let it go: “See, if I wasn’t sitting here, I wouldn’t know that someone in this seat may be experiencing a chill, unless they told me,” he said. “And most people won’t tell.” Still later, again as if to himself: “Monday morning, I need to point out this air problem. We’ve gotta solve it.”
Citizen: It takes this kind of obsessiveness to do hospitality right, doesn’t it?
JB: It takes being conscious and purposeful. It’s funny, just before you called, I got a notice that I didn’t file a liquor tax return in November of 2013 for this place. Well, Lo Spiedo didn’t open until November of 2014. Now, I understand that large organizations make mistakes. And I got on the phone and we straightened it out. So it was fine, ultimately. But it’s also part and parcel of what’s wrong with large organizations. No one was empowered to look into the facts before that notice went out. If someone had looked, they would have seen that we reported no sales tax in 2013 and maybe said, “Oh, look, they must not have been opened yet.”
Mayor Kenney should spend some time behind the counter at the municipal services building, interfacing with citizens. It’s more than just team building. It can also lead to insights, like ‘We might not have the most efficient system here.’
Citizen: It reminds me of the story in your book about your experience in line with your kids at a fast food spot at the Joyce Kilmer service area on the Jersey Turnpike.
JB: Yes! We were in a long line and about to bail when three employees came around to the front of the stand with pen and paper in hand and started taking all our orders. By the time I got to the register a few minutes later, my order was already ready. I couldn’t help myself and I went up to one of them. “I saw what you did,” I said. “Is that standard operating procedure?” She looked like she was afraid she was about to get in trouble and said, “No, I just thought that since we had all finished assembling food, and you all were going to be waiting a long time, we could take orders then run back and continue packing them up. I sure wouldn’t want to wait in such a long line.”
Citizen: That’s empathy.
JB: She was thinking. She was performing genuine hospitality. Why wasn’t there an equivalent to her in government before that bogus tax bill went out? What that fast food worker knew was that there is not a single person in the corporate structure who will be annoyed with you for trying to make customer service better.
Citizen: So how do you create a culture that’s proactive like that?
JB: A lot of it has to do with hiring and training. Just hiring someone and expecting them to perform to your standards, that’s a lot to ask. We’d never hire a cook, no matter how talented, and just say, “Okay, it’s your turn to make all these meals.” You have to train and give direction and oversee.
Typically, before we open a restaurant, our staff role plays for two full days. Some play the customer, others wait on them, and then we fill out forms and learn from the experience. We’re our own toughest critic. Our managers are empowered to do this whenever they think it’s needed.
Years ago, when I was at Aramark, it was mandatory that everyone in corporate spend a day working in the field at an hourly job alongside an hourly worker. [Aramark CEO] Joe Neubauer worked on a truck. I made waffles with the general counsel. Today, you’ll find Marc working in the dish room washing dishes during a new restaurant opening. It helps you understand what other people do and creates a culture. Mayor Kenney should spend some time behind the counter at the municipal services building, interfacing with the people who are coming in to straighten out their water bills, or whatever. It’s more than just team building. It can also lead to insights, like “We might not have the most efficient system here.”
Citizen: I had to laugh when I read about your pet peeve. When a waiter or waitress says to a diner, “Let me get your server.”
JB: Oh my God, I hate that. Sometimes, when I’m eating in a new restaurant, I’ll test it. I’ll wait until our server is out of sight and ask a different server to provide something for our table. Whenever I hear, “Sure,” I know we’re going to be well taken care of. When I hear, “Let me get your server,” I know we’re in for a mediocre experience. Because “Let me get your server” really means I don’t want to help you. Let me get someone who feels like helping you. It’s the ultimate passing of the buck and it doesn’t just happen in my business. It happens when you’re in line at the grocery store and are told “My lane’s closing.” Or when your mystery shopper got sent to all those different places in search of a block party permit, only to find out the office was only open for a two-hour window, and they’d missed it.
When’s the last time you woke up in the morning and said, “Oh, good—I get to go to City Hall today to get a permit?” It’s a shame that the highlight is when it happens the right way, when someone goes out of their way for the customer.
Citizen: You cite as one of your customer service gurus none other than Patrick Swayze in the classic movie Road House. He plays a bouncer who tames out-of-control bars by being nice. When it comes to government, though, and civil servant workers, I wonder if we’ve removed the incentive to be nice?
JB: May Swayze rest in peace. But, really, isn’t that human nature? Aren’t we caring? Isn’t that part of the human form? That miserable person behind that city desk, they were nice to somebody at some point that day. They have friends, loved ones. Our job as leaders is to get them to be their most caring selves.
Citizen: This gets us to Mayor Kenney. He’s said his goal is to make city government more efficient at delivering services. What’s your advice to him?
JB: Job one is to follow the Swayze advice and be nice, and I believe Mayor Kenney is. Seems like he is genuinely concerned. But with the concern should come genuine understanding. Does he understand the workings of city government? These plates on our table right now? I know all the things that transpired to make them come out of the kitchen, down to the second. Before he read it in The Citizen, did Kenney know all the hoops you have to jump through to get a block party permit?
When’s the last time you woke up in the morning and said, ‘Oh, good—I get to go to City Hall to get a permit’? It’s a shame that the highlight is when it happens the right way, when someone goes out of their way for the customer.
But my biggest piece of advice is one I shared three times with the last mayor, to no avail. Get yourself a board of advisers from different sectors and meet with them regularly. Have someone from hospitality, someone from finance, someone from business. These shouldn’t be political donors or patronage picks. They should be experts who can weigh in with ideas and best practices City Hall may not know about.
Citizen: Yeah, I bet most city workers don’t role play their interactions with taxpayers like your staffers role play theirs with your diners.
JB: And that’s just one little thing. Look, I don’t have all the answers. I’d actually have more questions than answers when it comes to the way city government works. But you get to new ideas and a better experience by asking the right questions.