Reality television and social media have made for more educated – and demanding – consumers in restaurants, retail stores and interior-design firms. Here, experts in those three fields explain how the customer relations model is changing and how they stay ahead of the game
Photo courtesy of Nikki McKean/Piano Piano
Front-of-house manager at Toronto's Piano Piano and 20-year restaurant industry veteran
“Anybody can learn about wine, anybody can learn about food, anybody can learn about systems installed to make your place successful. I’ve always seen it as a bit of an entertainment business, somebody that can approach a table with confidence. You need to know the answers to the questions that the customers are going to ask you. As time goes on people know more about cooking, that’s from TV and people taking wine courses, so your service always needs to be a jump ahead to be able to answer questions.
Customers’ increased knowledge of food and restaurants has helped change that perception about the job, as well, so part of what constitutes good service for an evening out now is that you’ve learned something from your server, they’ve told you about a new grape varietal or a new mushroom you’ve never heard about. People are also more inclined to take the recommendations from people serving the table: What restaurants do you like to go to? Where do you like to eat? There’s almost a concierge component to the job now.
Recognizing what people drink, what their favourite kinds of wines are and if they have any food restrictions will always be crucial components of service in this industry. Online reservation systems and Open Table and things like that are making it easier because you can store that stuff online, but back in the day the sign of a good maitre d’ was being able to keep that information in their head. And now, with social media, everyone is a potential critic. People will pick up their smart phones before they pick up their fork when a dish hits the table.
If you come into our restaurant on a Saturday night at 5:30 p.m. it’s full. Kids are learning about food and that’s a positive thing. It sets the tone for the restaurant. It’s nice to see families teaching their kids about food. It’s a great energy to have in the room.
Our kids’ menu was done with a dietician and is very extensive. But one of the things we’ve done is to build a separate dining
room downstairs with a kids’ play area. Sometimes kids aren’t well liked in a restaurant and that’s not always just by management or staff, but often by the couple sitting next to a screaming baby. They’ve spent $50 for a babysitter that night and it’s their one night out in two months; they might
as well have stayed home and
ordered pizza again. This way we’re able to give families a private, comfortable place to eat and it kind of reflects the neighbourhood.” – As told to Chris Johns
Photos courtesy Dustin Walker/Laurel & Wolf
Photos courtesy Dustin Walker/Laurel & Wolf
CEO and founder, Laurel & Wolf interior design marketplace
“I was at a phenomenal design firm for about four years, where we did very high-end residential work all over the U.S., as well as internationally. But we were working with the top one per cent of people in the market – incredibly wealthy clientele. What I realized quickly was that interior design as a service had really not changed since the early 1900s. At the same time, there was a massive evolution happening to everything around interior design as a result of technology. Through the birth of Pinterest, Instagram and Houzz, people were consuming design content at a rapid pace.
Designers were offering design services through email for years, and it was unbelievably clunky. I thought, if you could use the technology to streamline the service, you could still make a good amount of money, work on the projects you like, and not have to do the stuff most designers hate, which is contracts, billing, admin, purchasing. Designers have to apply to be a part of Laurel & Wolf, and we look at their education, as well as the number of years of working experience. Plus we do a portfolio review. It’s a very thorough vetting process. We want them to be as successful as possible, and we also want to make sure that our clients have a phenomenal design experience.
What we built from the tech perspective is complex. Step one is a quiz, where we gather a lot of information: You’re telling us about your style, uploading photos of your space, giving us dimensions of your room. We ask you the questions a traditional interior designer would ask. We take a flat fee per room, and you pay your one-time fee. Then you get connected to three to five interior designers for a first look. From there you choose the designer and start the online collaborative design process. Once you receive your final design, we also offer a free ‘Buy for Me’ service.
Our clients love the fact that they can communicate so seamlessly with their designers. It’s democratizing the service, but it’s also a lot more fun. We’ve designed everything from a 22-year-old’s studio apartment to 8,000-square-foot homes.” – As told to Anya Georgijevic
Personal shopper at Holt Renfrew’s Toronto Bloor Street store for 10 years
“I went to New York for the fall collections at the end of February during New York fashion week, and spent three days with the buyers. It was fantastic to give the clients validation; they thought, ‘Holt Renfrew sent Marlo to New York so they must trust her opinion.’ It was great to learn where the [buyers] are coming from and have them learn about my clients – what they are ready to spend on and what they are asking for. More coloured dresses, for example. I can say I have clients that would love this line or this is something that I could really sell them.
One special thing I do is go to clients’ homes. I look at what they own and help them to edit their closets. I’m there for a couple of hours, sometimes I will take photos and make notes. Later, we meet at the store to build their wardrobes. I have clients who come in every week, some every month and at the beginning of every season. We can have breakfast or lunch brought up, but most people want to focus on the task. It’s changed a bit because fashion has changed and brands realize customers are seeing things on social media and online and they want immediate gratification. The number of deliveries from vendors has increased and the number of times people come into the store to see if we have new items has increased.
Before I was the one guiding my clients, but now they come to me with ideas from people they follow on Instagram. My job is to be more of a stylist than I ever was in the past. I find key pieces that work with their lifestyles and customize what they are seeing on social media to suit them. They are now getting very fast feedback and so am I. A lot of my clients who look at my Instagram like the way I pose and the style
of the pictures, so I show them how to do it. My Instagram is lifestyle based – I have pictures of my family and me on vacation. It’s good to show what I wear on the weekends and how they can mix it up
in a very natural setting. Instagram really sells things.” – As told to Alex Laws
When it comes to answering the call of service, Nathalie Atkinson finds that, for some companies, no length is too great
Pillow fort, please
In 2012, a guest at the Fairmont Winnipeg hotel playfully requested a vanilla Coke and a pillow fort, under the reservation form’s “Special Instructions.” He arrived at his room to find a DIY pillow-fort kit devised by the hotel’s service team, as well as snacks to pair with his vanilla Cokes. The story went viral, of course.
U.K. grocery chain Sainsbury’s changed the name of its Tiger bread, a cracked-crusted loaf, to Giraffe bread in early 2012 a few months after a three-year-old wrote in with the observation that its stippled crust looked more like
giraffe print than the stripes of a tiger.
Lost and found
Nordstrom is known for its top-level service, with good reason: In 2011, a woman lost the diamond from her wedding ring while shopping at a North Carolina location of the department store. Employees joined the woman’s search on the floor and throughout the premises to no avail. Eventually, they sifted through the contents of the cleaning department’s vacuum bags and found the jewel.
Take me home
During natural disasters, and most recently the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, Airbnb opened an emergency portal to assist stranded tourists and displaced residents find free places to stay through its network of local hosts.