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5 Secrets For Delighting Your Customers From Danny Meyer’s Dining Empire

Hospitality Quotient’s Susan Salgado on how to drive positive change in your organization from the inside.

5 Secrets For Delighting Your Customers From Danny Meyer’s Dining Empire
[Photo: Flickr user Astronomy at Stevens]

Susan Salgado started her career at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) as a grad student at NYU’s Stern School of Business in 1999.

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She was studying organizational culture and wanted to use his famously hospitable network of restaurants as a case study for her dissertation.

“I had been a guest at Danny’s restaurants, and I always felt there had been something very different about the people who worked at his restaurants. They were so passionate about what they did, so eager to really delight someone–to make someone’s day. And you came back over and over again because you wanted more of that kind of an experience,” Salgado says. “I thought, ‘There’s something about how he builds culture in his restaurants. I wonder if he has a system in place. Has he unlocked the secret code about how to transmit culture that everyone’s been trying to figure out?'”

Not only did he consent to Salgado’s request to study his restaurants, but he also wound up hiring Salgado to develop the model for scaling the company’s upbeat, people-first culture to all of its future projects.

Now, Salgado runs Hospitality Quotient, the consulting firm she founded with Meyer in 2010 to help clients in 21 industries from health care to government apply hospitality lessons to their own practices. Here are five ways to make your business better with Salgado’s hospitality secrets:

Have Each Other’s Backs

USHG’s success is rooted in what the company calls Enlightened Hospitality–treating everyone well inside the company and out.

“The most important thing we can do every day is take care of each other, our team members, the people who work in this company. It’s about mutual caring and respect among everyone who works here, where they all take care of one another, where you’ve got each other’s backs, there’s not that jockeying for position and the negative forms of competition,” Salgado says. “You don’t have people playing the blame game or ‘it’s not my job.’ These are some of the epidemics of workplaces that make work not only unpleasant but toxic. And when people are placed into toxic work environments, no matter how lovely you are as an individual, you turn toxic–or you quit.”

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State Your Purpose

A positive company culture is essential for success. But Salgado says the stellar amenities at giants like Google and Facebook have perpetuated a myth that to have a great culture, companies need to provide their teams with Ping-Pong tables, beer kegs, and free lunch.

“That is really wonderful if it fits what you’re trying to accomplish in your organization. But if you put that into a bank, it would be weird. It doesn’t fit, and that’s not because banks can’t be fun or they can’t have a great work environment. You’re not attracting that type of employee. When you think about who works in a company like Facebook, they’re trying to attract creatives. It’s a different set of values that you’re trying to reinforce. And amenities like Ping-Pong tables have to match what values you’re trying to reinforce in your organization.”

To find what that cultural fit is, companies need to develop and evangelize a strong mission among its employees, she says. Startups can propagate a mission from the get-go, but established companies can still reconnect to values they already hold.

Nail The Systems

Even with a positive culture and well-meaning staff, however, a company can still fall flat if it hasn’t nailed the technical details of its mission–delivering on a quality product or service. Meyer and Salgado call this marrying the emotional with the technical.

“In our restaurants, you want to feel welcome. That’s the hospitality. But on the service side, you want to know that you’re going to get really high quality food, that it will come quickly, and you won’t be sitting around waiting forever for your check to come at the end of the meal. That’s the technical part. And the technical and the emotional together are what create the amazing experience,” Salgado says.

If hostesses and servers arrived for their shifts and the glasses weren’t buffed and the ice buckets weren’t filled, the ensuing pandemonium would leave no room for the warm greetings and attention to detail USHG guests have come to expect. Before the rise in web-powered reservations and maps, USHG staffs tacked up newspapers with the week’s theater listings and prepped on distances to theaters, taxi travel times, where to have a drink, and when to make reservations before a show.

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“By providing us with those tools, we could then be efficient. And when you’re efficient, it gives you the bandwidth to be really thoughtful in how you approach someone. If we were scrambling and stressed out, we wouldn’t have the bandwidth to be really thoughtful,” Salgado says.

Likewise, she says, if a doctor touts a paperless office as a way to deliver better service to patients, the billing and check-in software better work, or the whole system derails.

Unshackle Your Leaders

Values and mission are nothing if leaders aren’t equipped to bring them to life.

Salgado says Meyer has historically hired well by going after what he calls “51 percenters,” or those whose skills are 49% technical and 51% emotional. Then, USHG focuses on giving leaders the tools they need to do their jobs and removing roadblocks that might be in the way.

“Getting the right people on the bus is one aspect,” Salgado says. “Leaders set the tone of the work environment. You bring great people in, you give them what they need to do to do their jobs. And then you have a boss that inspires them, paves the way, and removes obstacles. That’s a winning workplace. That’s where everybody wants to work. So you’ve got to have that North Star of the vision. But how you actually put them to work is by creating effective leaders who are bringing the right people in, giving them the tools, and inspiring them every day.”

Tap Into Data–But Don’t Be Creepy

Dining at Meyer’s restaurants is a synchronized affair: Intuitive servers know when to be helpful and when to step away. Drinks, food, and the bill all arrive almost on a drum beat. And Salgado says that experience is no accident.

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Not only does technology help USHG keep data on its guests–pre-Internet practices of jotting down notes about regulars and observing context inform how staff interacts with them. OpenTable helps to alert restaurants when it’s a diner’s birthday. Servers know to be extra conversational around guests who arrive holding a tour guide book and less so when a couple appears to be on a date. An old internal USHG trick of putting a square of menu paper under a salt shaker alerts everyone on the restaurant floor that a table is headed for a Broadway show and should be expedited for punctuality.

But just like in other businesses, gathering too much data can be burdensome and adhering to it can become invasive.

“At one point, I went into one of our restaurants with my family. And the restaurant was expecting my daughter to use a high chair. And she was seven, because they hadn’t updated their notes. They were trying to anticipate, and we can trip over it sometimes because the information isn’t current. And it can get a little creepy sometimes. How did she know I had a daughter–and is it cool or is it weird?”

The line between creepy and helpful is something that USHG is still trying to plot, Salgado says. But training a staff to be emotionally intelligent and have the judgment about when to act on data and when to just be people is an invaluable investment.

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