Franchising | January 2012 | By Robert Thomas

Treat Customers Like Your Boss' Family

At David Martinez’s Russo’s Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen units, customer service isn’t a matter of business, it’s a matter of family.

David Martinez treats customers like family at his Russo's units.
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Before he became a Russo’s Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen franchisee, David Martinez ran a bookstore, a gym, and a Ben & Jerry’s shop. Today, after more than three years of running his two Texas-based Russo’s units, Martinez says there’s one thing he learned at his former businesses that helps him outperform quick-serve competition: good customer service is critical.

Martinez’s style of establishing relationships with customers and treating them like family has translated into deeply loyal customers, some of whom have traveled more than 160 miles just to check out his second Russo’s unit. Because of such service, Martinez’s units are two of the company’s best performing stores.

Martinez shares his secrets on how franchisees can establish personal ties to their clientele.

1. Stay in the Dining Room

Look, it’s no secret to anybody in this business that your customer can get food anywhere. The fact that they chose you and your brand is a victory in itself, which is why it has to be a good experience. I still believe that the experience starts with the owner and operator of the unit.

“I tell my staff to treat every customer as if they were my family.”

If I don’t have something crucial to do for the success of my business, I’m out on the floor the whole time. Franchisees forget that. Stay out where the business happens and keep monitoring your customer interaction. Watch your staff or other employees and how they uphold their image and relations with customers.

This brings up another point: You have to treat your staff well, too. It doesn’t make any sense to pound customer service into their brains and treat them with no quality or respect. It’s simple stuff, too. Know their names. Interact with them. Let the relationship you have with them be an example for how they should interact with the customer.

2. Treat Them Like Family

A common example of good customer service is telling your staff to treat them like you would treat family. The problem with that is some people might take that with a more relaxed attitude. I tell my staff to treat every customer as if they were my family.

It’s obvious that my wife and kids unintentionally get treated differently when they come in, but that’s because my staff wants to perform well for them because of me. Had I not treated employees with the same type of respect, they might not feel this way.

I also tend to hire employees based on personality rather than experience. It’s a gamble, but they are the ones who have to generate customer satisfaction. We can train them on the food and technical aspects, but I’d rather have a personality out on the floor above anything else. Again, it goes back to giving the customers an experience that they won’t be able to get anywhere else.   

3. Survey Your Customers

The best part about maintaining customer service is being able to see the fruit of your labors. When I’m out on the floor, I might see the same customer two or three times a day. However, like all aspects of this business, it comes at a cost, and customer surveys are still the best way to find out what customers want.

I have managers randomly go to tables and drop off surveys at the conclusion of a meal. It’s no secret tactic, but it certainly is the most effective. It’s a chance for the customers to speak for themselves and a chance for my staff and I to turn complainers into regulars.

One of these types of complaints came from a customer who made the 160-mile trek to have dinner with me at my new store. From a total stranger to an irate customer to a loyalist, complaints can happen.

4. Play to Your Strengths

Being an Italian-style restaurant, I’ve been able to turn cultural ideals into good customer service. Italians are generally known for big families and big eating. I can utilize what I already know from my own upbringing to better run my business. Just pick what you’re good at doing.  

It might be harder for a franchisee who doesn’t have this sort of restaurant style to use, but it comes down to authenticity. This isn’t something new that I’ve just implemented. I was doing the same sort of customer service with my past businesses. If you have personality filling the building, you can make any business type work. It might be more difficult for some franchisees managing more common units with less of a chance to expand on the cultural aspect of business. Nonetheless, don’t use this as an excuse.

5. Be an Employee Before a Boss

The easiest way to teach customer service is falling back on how you want to be treated yourself. I had a fair amount of experience, which is why I’d tell prospective franchisees to work directly at a quick serve for a while.

If you’re at the corporate level, just because you eat quick serve doesn’t mean you know how to run one, and you especially don’t know how to deal with customers.

Thanks to a friend, I was able to work on the floor as a quick-serve employee and now can call on that experience when it comes to training my staff to implement the customer service I want in my stores.

When it comes to training, we do a lot and it’s just as important as customer surveys. My employees know what I want because I’m not complacent when it comes to telling them. I neglected this in the beginning and it showed, but now it’s a line of constant communication. That’s important because customers are constantly alienated in today’s market and limited to what they’re allowed to do. If you’re a business that doesn’t restrict them from being a customer, you’re doing it right.