The Power of Observation in delivering better customer experiences

Are your staff paying attention to the right things?  Are your staff focussed on the customer? Are you creating a learning environment that encourages the team to observe and act?

We live in a fast-paced world – our attention so often seized by a host of distractions that sometimes we simply forget to observe and focus on the customer.

Recently, I was impressed by the gesture of a waiter who recommended a style of champagne I had enjoyed on my previous visit, demonstrating not only great attention to detail, but also a prodigious memory!  On another occasion my friend requested a glass of rosé she had enjoyed on the downstairs menu, which would perfectly complement our lamb. Another waiter noticed my guest had dined downstairs previously and seamlessly obtained the wine from the dining area below. A simple gesture, but nevertheless noteworthy.

This reminded me of other occasions where staff had made the experience more comfortable and personalised by showing heightened awareness.  For example, crayons and paper when Sophie was younger, a quieter table when it looked like a business meeting, swift service when time was an issue, closing a window when there was a draught, adjusting a wonky table with a stop-gap piece of folded card to endure the length of our stay (hopefully fixing it permanently before the next customer arrived).

It’s easy not to pay attention to our surroundings – we have all experienced staff who avoid eye contact when they walk by.  By ignoring what’s going on around us we miss out on inspiration to develop our curiosities and look after people. When we use our power of observation we can better serve our relationships with customers and lead teams more effectively. 1

What is the power of observation?

According to the Oxford online dictionary, ‘observation is the action or process of observing something or someone in order to gain information.’ Our observation skills inform us about objects, events, attitudes and phenomenon using one or more senses.

Six steps to improving your observation skills

1. Know your subject matter.

If you work in fashion knowing fabrics, designers, sizing, styles, pricing and exchange policies is important – when a customer tells you they have an allergic reaction to polyester, you know immediately which garments to exclude.  Equally important is knowing the comparative sizing of European and Australian clothing.

With food service, it is important to know the correct pronunciation of items on the menu especially the ’tricky ones such as quinoa, paella, gnocchi or chorizo. Some customers may mispronounce these words so it is important to understand what they want to order.  Of course, knowing cooking techniques such as grilling, frying and steaming as well as base service skills of ordering and clearing are equally important.  Common observations in food service that may take away from the experience include clearing plates before the whole table has finished and not knowing all the ingredients in a dish, particularly important in relation to allergies and dietary preferences.

2. Actively observe customers

Keep your eyes open and notice what customers do and how they respond to you and others.  For example, you might focus on how orders are placed in any type of business.  Do excess queues warrant a second expresso machine or should less experienced staff be rostered during quieter times?  Conversely if customer numbers are low is there a leakage or a non-conversion issue?

While having lunch in a temporary pop up that had a reception desk a distance from the entry, my family and I watched helplessly as new customers would arrive at the venue, wait for acknowledgement, then leave without having even sighted the menu.  We wanted to leap out of our seats to welcome guests and let them know the food was delicious. The distance between the entry and reception desk was the culprit, but if staff had been more aware they could have addressed the problem.

3. Access all your senses

To be fully observant you need to use all your senses – smell, hearing, visual cues and emotions. To truly appreciate the customer experience it is worthwhile putting yourself in their position. For example, when sipping your wine or favourite tipple try to identify with the sensations in your mouth.  What flavours did you notice?  What were the textures?  Did it leave a positive taste in your mouth?  What were the surroundings?  How friendly were the people who served you?  Was there anything special about presentation or service?  When you step through an experience and take the time and the space to focus you start to appreciate what the experience might be like for the customer.

‘I hear noise the way a good chef tastes salt: too much is overbearing; too little is stifling. With just the right noise level, each table has the luxury of becoming enveloped by its own invisible veil of privacy, allowing animated conversation to flow. Too much noise aggressively invades the space and interferes with the guests’ ability to engage with one another. It’s annoying, stressful and inhospitable. 2

4. Record and make changes

Take time to stop, look and listen so you can really observe the operating environment and make appropriate enhancements or changes.

Write down everything you notice.  Is the space dark or light?  What type of feelings does it engender?  What sounds do you notice?  What greeting did you experience?  What were the staff wearing?  How did they make your feel?  Real life observations from customers are far more valuable than insights and surveys.  Taking the time to slow down and write down what you experienced at different times is a great starting point for change.

5. Reflect and communicate with staff

Meet with staff at the end of the day to see if there is anything that could be changed or enhanced the following day.  What did they notice that stood out?  Were the queues for takeaway too long?  What elements of customer service worked well?  Communication and observations should be shared with colleagues.  Use examples and quotes to illustrate , e.g. the hangers in the middle change room were broken, table 8 complained there was an uncomfortable draught, all five stools at the bar are wobbly, table 15 complimented the excellent service and have re-booked the same table for next week. 3

6. Stay inquisitive and try new things to test and assess.

Take the opportunity to try new menu items and gauge the response from consumers. Ask them why items appealed to them? Have they been before?  Are there requests or feedback that could be taken onboard, i.e. raw sugar instead of refined, soy milk, gluten free, freshly squeezed juices?  You may consider moving staff into different roles so they can appreciate the pressures, challenges and opportunities in customer and non-customer facing roles.
Observation is a powerful tool for learning, even more so as a leader. We need to be aware of how individuals in our teams are engaged, their energy levels and service to customers. We need to foster observation skills, ensuring they will be heard and enhancements will be made to create positive working environments for both staff and consumers.

1.       Ref:  How to boost your observation skills

2.       Award winning restauranteur Danney Meyer Setting the Table