As a college student, I worked at a five-star Italian restaurant where I learned the discipline and practice of customer service. The general manager knew exactly which corner to stand in to get a view of every single table during service. They would gauge diners’ experience according to how they were interacting, their microsignals, how much food was left on their plate and the way they glanced around the restaurant. What does this intense attention to detail and individual customer experience have to do with running a service-oriented technology business? Everything.
The tech industry is notorious for automating processes at the expense of personalization, and that aversion can extend to building the relationships necessary to produce a successful end product. Understandably, some companies and their developers prefer to keep relationships with their clients strictly functional because these connections are messy, people are unpredictable and nothing ever goes completely according to plan. It’s a dance we have to do over and again with every new client and project.
For those of us who wish to function as service-oriented tech companies, keeping on top of client and customer experiences requires us to stay attentive and listen with active care. Just like the veteran restaurant manager, we have to constantly scan our environment for cues of satisfaction and dissatisfaction.
Service is More Than an End Product
Before opening every night, the general manager would make staff hold long pieces of string to measure the angles and distance between tables to ensure they were straight and the edges perfectly aligned. Then, after telling staff the evening specials, he would randomly quiz them about the menu. What color is a fava bean?
Seeing the value of such old-school standards left a deep impression and helped me embed attention to detail as a foundational practice across the board, from designing good UX to cultivating relationships. Creating a desirable environment is about successfully orchestrating a million tiny details and always looking for tweaks to make the customer experience better.
That seemingly omniscient Italian from my earliest experience in the restaurant industry also taught me that being empathic goes hand-in-hand with the hard-nosed realities of running a service-oriented business. They showed me how to take care of people, how to make them feel good and how to read body language.
It might be easy to stereotype tech companies as impersonal dispensers of products (and their developers as cogs in the machinery), but we don’t want to just take orders. Our job is to become strategic partners from the ground up for long-term success, and that requires constant care and continual adaptation.
Mapping the Client Experience
We must be willing to redesign how we work with customers and end users over and over again—it’s always changing because expectations are always changing, and market norms are always changing. The moment that we stop trying to get better through small incremental improvements is the moment we stop being service-oriented.
In the same way that a restaurant has a sequence of service that maps a diner’s journey from the moment they enter the door, we can architect a customer experience from every touchpoint.
In the sales process, it’s valuable to layer in different people to create more relationship touchpoints throughout an organization, so, in our case, a new client meets a member of our operations team and then somebody from our engineering team in order to ensure that they feel fully supported. Then, we set expectations in terms of communication as part of a scripted onboarding experience. In our review meetings, we seek feedback to determine whether we have under-delivered and course correct if necessary.
The other thing I learned from that Italian restaurant is that no mistake is irredeemable. It doesn’t really matter if you get it right or wrong the first time, it is how you respond when the unexpected happens that matters. Turning a situation around after making a horrible mistake—even sending out a cold steak—can breed even more loyal customers because it demonstrates that you really care.
The Creative Heart of Service
Despite the image of tech as cold and distant, it’s important to recognize that coding and development itself is creative and we should seek to nurture a healthy environment so that people can perform at their best. To that end, it makes sense to think of your responsibility as running the entire length of the chain, from employees to clients and, finally, to end users. Finding humanity in the work along each link is key to building successful partnerships.
In the context of building products, we must be creative to design seamless, curated experiences for end users. There are plenty of apps that sit on someone’s phone unused before ultimately being deleted. The only way to grab the attention of people that share the same interests and problems is by understanding their needs.
To that end, we must always be asking our clients: What is the easiest point of entry for the user? Creating a low barrier is a quick win that in and of itself is an onboarding experience and an opportunity to build trust.
Equally, what may make one customer happy may not actually have any resonance in the wider market. If customers were only hiring us to write code, we would only be interested in meeting their expectations. The goal is not just to build products, but successful products that establish or reinforce a client’s reputable presence in the marketplace.
Adding Value Through Relationships
When we stand in our metaphorical corner of the room to observe the customer experience, we are consolidating data from products that have millions of users and harvesting insight. We are not interested in quick fixes. Customer service and a focus on the end-user experience means being oriented to what the market wants, not designing in a vacuum. We can then continue to build value over time.
In the restaurant business, the little surprise at the end of dinner adds value because it is unexpected. A complimentary after-dinner liqueur with a pithy origin story is a point of detail at its finest. Creating a richer, fuller customer experience can set a tech business apart in an exploding marketplace. For my old mentors, paying attention to every nuance from the beginning to the end is what defines five-star service.