Customer Service as Marketing: The Story of That’s A Some Pizza
By Micah Solomon
Eating pizza is a bit like making love: When it’s good it’s great, and when it’s bad, it’s still better than not having any.
Yet pizza (and pizzeria customer service) can always be improved, which is how I found myself training pizza restaurant operators in customer service best practices, and consumer trends at the recent International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas.
The Pizza Expo is an industry extravaganza held annually at the Las Vegas Convention Center with panels and sessions devoted to helping the attending pizzeria operators serve pizza that’s prepared right, with its ingredients sourced right, toppings topped right, marketing marketed right, signage signed right, and–my focus–customer service served right.
Even by Las Vegas standards, The International Pizza Expo is enormous, and it can be overwhelming. For example, at times during the day, the line on the curb outside for taxis can run for more than a mile and for upwards of an hour. Yet even that taxi line can be an opportunity for pizza-related learning; it was in that hour-long taxi line that I serendipitously ran into the owner of That’s A Some Pizza, a tiny but busy outpost of pizza artistry in the Seattle area (my home turf) and used the time in the taxi line–we had plenty of it, believe me!–to interview them.
I was interested to learn about the challenges and successes the restaurant has had since it was founded in the mid-1980’s, and how it is doing today in the hyper-competitive pizzeria landscape of the Pacific Northwest, a pizzascape that includes the innovative and rapidly-growing Mod Pizza phenomenon and dozens of “artisanal” and chef-driven pizzerias of various stripes. It turns out that it’s a story that goes back, in a sense, to the 1890s and the Klondike (Alaskan) Gold Rush.
Micah Solomon Tell me a bit of the early history of That’s A Some Pizza.
Will Grant, Owner, That’s A Some Pizza (Bainbridge Island, Washington): In 1984, when I was only eight years old, my parents and a friend (Phil Hausmann) joined forces to create the perfect sourdough pizza, basing it on the friend’s sourdough starter, which his great-great-grandfather had passed on from the Klondike Gold Rush. Our restaurant is still in the 500-square-foot location where it started, and we still make that same sourdough pizza, 32 years later.
As an eight-year-old, I spent most of my time hanging around the pizza parlor. My parents–after enduring years of my pleading and begging–finally let me start working in the pizza parlor when I was eleven, as a Chef’s Apprentice, and now, after my parents have retired, I’m now the sole owner of That’s A Some Pizza.
Micah: Customer service is a differentiator for your business. Can share with me your customer service philosophy, and any customer service practices that have stood you in good stead?
Will: Customer service–our reputation with our customers–is literally our only marketing effort. In support of this, I think the #1 philosophy that has stood us in good stead is the feeling that every mistake is a chance to make a lifelong customer. When we make a mistake, not only will we pay for the meal but comp the next one as well to make sure the customer comes back. We will even cover it if the mistake is, or seems to be, the fault of the customer. My feeling is that there’s no point being stingy about the cost of one pizza order, if you compare it to the cost of weekly orders for the next several years from a happy customer.
Micah: It can’t always be easy, in a restaurant like yours, that does a high volume of business with the public. Are there challenges related to customer service that keep you from always being able to pull off the level of service that you aim for?
Will: One of the hardest things is training our employees to not to take complaints personally. They’re proud of the work that they do, and naturally prone to get defensive. It’s my job to help them learn that fighting with a customer is never going to be successful.
Social media has been quite a challenge at times. With websites like Yelp, every person who has eaten food is now a food critic. It has taken me years to learn not to look at Yelp after 10 pm because, if I do, I’ll be up until 5 in the morning worrying about it. I do respond to both good and bad reviews, I offer free food on the next visit if something has gone wrong, and do my best to relate to the customer.
Micah: Is a customer ever too ridiculously unreasonable, or is clearly taking advantage of you?
Will: We’ve been fortunate. Maybe because we’re in a small town and are involved with the local community, our customers are pretty respectful and understanding.
Though we did have a funny incident a couple years ago. During the playoffs the Seahawks were playing the Green Bay Packers and our city manager got national attention by temporarily–and unenforceably–banning any Wisconsin cheese on Bainbridge Island, where we’re located. I didn’t think anything of it until the following Friday, when my delivery driver asked me why we had so many deliveries to City Hall. It turned out that a radio station in Wisconsin thought it would be funny to encourage their listeners, Packers fans, of course, to prank order cheese pizzas; we ended up with more than 30 prank calls, only a couple of which sneaked past us. Once we caught on, we answered every prank call with “Go Hawks, ” which sent many a Green Bay fan into a string of expletive-filled comments.
Micah: Great customer service depends on having great employees who can interact successfully with customers. Do you have a philosophy of hiring, onboarding, and inspiring customer-facing employees that you’d like to share with me?
Will: Over the years my philosophy has grown when it comes to employees. My first breakthrough was coming up with what I call the “Cycle of Sales” when I was just an employee myself learning the ropes at our pizza parlor. The “cycle of sales” idea is take care of the employees and the employees will take care of the customers and in turn the customers will take care of the business.
As an owner I’ve been able to become a mentor to my managers and staff. I try to think of myself as a father figure and to help them to succeed giving them the moral support, tools and responsibility they need to be successful leaders and employees.
In my perspective you need to actually care for your employees for them to care about your business. Only with their respect are you able to push them to work their best, always improving themselves. And by giving the managers the respect and authority to do a good job they in turn are mentors to the staff befriending them and asking for their hard work and showing them how to work hard by example.
Going to yearly conventions, such as the local Pacific Northwest food show and, of course, the show we’re attending now (The International Pizza Expo), also helps introduce my key staff members with bigger management concepts and socializes them with other pizzeria/restaurant managers that can relate to them and their jobs.
Micah: One of my own principles of customer service is that timeliness is essential. To quote myself, “If you deliver the perfect product or service, but you deliver it late, it’s by definition defective.” In the pizza business, Failing to be consistently fast can work against you, with so many other food options and with speedy competition within the pizza arena such as Mod Pizza. Are you able to address this?
Will: This has definitely been a focus of ours. Even in a 500 square foot restaurant, we have amazing speed here. Our Rotoflex oven a can cook 300 pizzas an hour, our rollers can roll twelve 16 inch pizzas in 4:26 seconds and we can make a pizza in under 30 seconds for a total pizza make time of 8 minutes per pizza.
These details really matter to us, because in 32 years our sole marketing has been word of mouth, which we develop by focusing on the factors that we can control. Quick delivery times, consistent food, hiring competent staff and focusing on training our staff have all helped us market our restaurant to our local community.
© 2016 Micah Solomon
Micah Solomon is a Seattle-based customer service consultant, customer service speaker, thought leader, keynote speaker, customer service trainer, and bestselling author. He will present two seminars on service at Pizza Expo 2017.