Neil Blumenthal And Danny Meyer On The State Of Customer Service

How the Warby Parker co-CEO and Union Square Hospitality Group restaurateur combine tech and human connection.

Neil Blumenthal And Danny Meyer On The State Of Customer Service
Neil Blumenthal and Danny Meyer agree that one of the greatest gifts a business can give customers is time. [Photo: ioulex]

Whether you’re arguing with your cable company or trying to rebook a flight, awful customer service encounters are a disheartening part of daily life. But Union Square Hospitality Group restaurateur Danny Meyer—who wrote the influential 2006 statement of customer-care purpose Setting the Table—and Warby Parker’s Neil Blumenthal are helping inspire a new generation of companies to overhaul how they think about interacting with the public. Meyer and Blumenthal have both turned their unusual philosophies into booming businesses with enormous loyalty, as they explained to Fast Company’s Noah Robischon at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in November.


How do you decide where and how to implement technology in your business? Danny, you’ve said that you’re going to have employees at the Union Square Cafe wear Apple Watches.

Danny Meyer: First of all, the goal should not be to remove humans from the equation, but [to] empower human beings who actually have a beating heart and who are caring people to achieve a greater degree of hospitality. The moment you tell me that tech should be used to remove people, that’s just not something I want to be part of. Two kinds of employees will be outfitted with Apple Watches: managers and sommeliers. There is a gentle ping that could go from the manager to the front desk to say table 62 is ready. Or when a waiter places an order for a bottle of wine, the sommelier, who is wearing a watch, gets a ping and can bring you that bottle and save eight minutes. [Our] system can say table 42 has just paid their bill, and they can ping the coat checker and have your coats ready for you at the front door so you can be off. The bottom line of all this is, can we give you back the gift of time?

Neil, you have been able to bring more people out of the back office to the front of the stores through your use of technology. How does that work?

Neil Blumenthal: We view technology the same way. When we were opening our first brick-and-mortar stores, we started looking at all these point-of-sale systems because we needed a way for people to check out. We couldn’t find a system that did everything that we envisioned, so we built one, [which] runs off of iPad Minis. We want to eliminate low-value interactions and amplify high-value interactions. Asking somebody for their billing address, that’s a low-value interaction, and frankly, you’d prefer not to talk to a human being about that. But helping you select the right pair of glasses for your face is something that we want to engage with.

We spent a lot of time creating functionality that can get everybody who was at the back of the house to be on the floor, working and engaging directly with customers. We had timers, and we would say, “Okay, can we reduce time here?” We would look at that data and match it to our observations: Is somebody’s head down, looking at the screen? To Danny’s point, that’s a bad interaction.

Used strategically, Danny Meyer and Neil Blumenthal say, social media can provide customer service, yield intelligence, and offer marketing opportunites.[Photo: Melissa Golden]

Both of you have built personalization into your businesses without allowing it to feel robotic or weird. How have you done that?

NB: Our customer-experience team is constantly looking for cues when they get an email, when they’re talking to someone on live chat. There was an instance where [a customer] was live-chatting and made a few Lord of the Rings references, and [a Warby employee] recognized it and was like, “But I don’t know that much about Lord of the Rings,” grabbed another [employee], and they had a whole conversation. That’s a level of personalization that doesn’t require technology. We have had instances where people start talking about Harry Potter and then maybe we’ll order them a Harry Potter scarf and send them the latest Harry Potter book. Going above and beyond, that creates these great moments. And your community loves you for it.

It’s also [about] having integrated teams that are constantly communicating. We respond to pretty much every tweet unless somebody is saying something horrible about the world. Our social media team flagged a tweet [saying] that this customer was in love with one of our customer-experience associates because she had helped him so much. She then recorded a short video on YouTube and sent him the link through Twitter. We thought it was just going to be this quick, special thing, but it kept getting retweeted. That video has over 30,000 views. [With] Twitter, you only have 140 characters and that’s really hard for a customer service interaction. We made it part of our playbook to record short videos, so suddenly a potentially challenging customer service interaction becomes a marketing tool, just because it’s a great customer experience.

Video: How Neil Blumenthal Had The Vision To Become An Entrepeneur

Danny, Union Square Hospitality Group has been using a guest-engagement software tool called Venga. How are you finding it helps your businesses?

DM: It’s fishing all the different lakes to collect as much relevant information as exists [on social channels] so that on a day-to-day basis we gauge what people are saying about our restaurants. It allows us to eavesdrop on conversations that are happening in public and crystallizes the feedback. It can give us actionable opportunities, or we might see a pattern. It could be that something needs to be addressed. In the old days, I wouldn’t learn about that until two weeks later when I got a snail-mail complaint, by which time this person has probably told 30 or 40 people how awful their experience was. [Now] we can address it in real time.


And by the way, we also get really good tweets, and that gives us a chance to play offense and go overboard. About a year ago or so, there was a couple doing what some people lovingly call a “Danny dine-around.” I don’t really call it that. But they had read Setting the Table and wanted to eat [one meal at every one of my restaurants]. They had planned this out just perfectly. They would not have time to go to Shake Shack, but they knew they could get it at JFK [airport] for their flight home. And they tweeted, “We’re crushed! No one told us that we were going to be in [the wrong terminal].” Well, the guys at Shake Shack picked that up in real time, tweeted back to them, and brought them their meal two terminals away. That ended up becoming a whole legend that they tweeted about forever.

How do you hire people who understand technology but at the same time have qualities that make them extremely customer-friendly?

NB: We look for three things: people who are proactive, curious, and passionate about Warby Parker. You have to be proactive because stuff is changing and you have to be taking action. We are moving too fast for people to just wait for direction from their manager. We want to hire lifelong learners because [technology] is changing constantly. At Warby Parker, we say that we’re customer focused but medium agnostic. When we started six years ago, we primarily sold through desktop e-commerce. Now it’s primarily mobile commerce. We have experimented with social commerce. We now have [more than] 40 stores. I don’t know what will be next. Maybe it will be virtual reality. People who are passionate about Warby Parker are passionate about creating a company that can scale, be profitable, and do good in the world—without charging a premium for it. People who love fun, creativity, providing awesome customer experiences. That’s not something that is easily taught.

Danny, you also have a set of values for the Union Square Hospitality Group.

DM: We have identified a set of skills that are almost always present in someone who has what we call a high HQ—a hospitality quotient. [These people] are kind and optimistic, intellectually curious, have an amazing work ethic and a high degree of empathy, are self-aware. [They are] motivated more than anything by the desire to make someone else feel better. We don’t know how to teach any of those things. What we teach is how to identify them and hire for them.


I hate to say it, but we’re all selling a commodity. I’m really proud of our food, and I know our chefs would be furious if they heard me say that any of what we sell is a commodity, but let’s face it: Whatever we cook, I bet you could find another handful of examples in this city that are at least as good. What you’re going to come back for—or not—is how we made you feel. We know that. Once we hire these people, we also then have to tell them how we expect them to behave, and those are [our] four family values: excellence, hospitality, entrepreneurial spirit, and integrity.

Neil, it was announced recently that direct-to-consumer contact lens company Hubble Contacts raised more than $7 million in funding. Do you see yourselves getting into contacts or other products?

NB: We have been very focused on eyeglasses in particular because it’s a massive industry. We received some pretty good advice early on that if you stop to pick up every piece of gold along the way, you’ll never get to the end of the rainbow. This is not to say that you won’t see us continue to expand into other categories or offer additional services, but it’s always about how we grow quickly while creating the infrastructure. I think you’ll continue to see diagnostic tools that help us get prescriptions easier, faster, less expensively. Five years from now, you’ll still need to go to the doctor to have other eye-health checkups, like glaucoma. But when people want to renew their contact lens or eyeglasses prescription, they will be able to do that from home using a mobile device.

Here’s another eyeglass question, but for Danny. Augmented reality—glasses you can see through that provide digital information—do you see a time when servers . . .

DM: No.


Why not?

DM: The first four gifts of hospitality we all got within seconds of being born were eye contact, a smile, a hug, and some pretty good food. With any transaction, people want to know that you see them. The surest line between your heart and the next person’s heart is eye contact. I just don’t want stuff getting in the way of that.

About the author

I'm the executive editor of Fast Company and Co.Design.