If not for Tom and Christian, my first job waiting tables at a suburban New Jersey chain restaurant would have been absolute Hell. My managers swooped in like angels, saving my soul whenever I made a mistake. They protected me when I made errors and cooled down devilish customers who had no intention of backing down from grievances. It’s been a long time since my last shift at that chain restaurant, but I often think about how Tom or Christian would handle situations I observe from my perspective of a professional pizza customer. I learned from them that the key to maintaining customer satisfaction is summed up by a single word: prevention. Independent pizzerias can save time and money by learning how to anticipate disasters before they become customer complaints.
A busy pizzeria is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you’re making money! On the other, you’re turning away customers. I once visited a pizzeria that had a particularly long wait for a table. The manager kept the queue engaged by serving pizza samples every few minutes. Not only did it encourage us to stay, it also helped us plan our pizza order. Another pizzeria that managed long wait times installed heat lamps along the front of their building to take care of queuing guests in winter. Small gestures like this make it easy for me to endure a long wait that could otherwise morph into a negative experience.
I once visited a pizzeria that had a huge kitchen backup thanks to a large takeout order. What’s good for the night’s sales was potentially disastrous in terms of complaint potential. The manager brought free appetizer samples to tables whose food was excessively delayed. A free meatball here and a breadstick there kept customers occupied while the kitchen got their groove back. Preemptive food strikes helped avoid customer explosions at an extremely low cost.
If you’re unsure about how to spot potential disasters, start by making a list of your most common customer complaints. A brick-oven pizzeria that frequently fields complaints about “burned crust” might want to consider having servers open their spiel with a bit about why charred crust is an intentional feature of this pizza style. If a customer is violently opposed, at least they’ll let you know and you’ll have the opportunity to bake the pie to their liking rather than waste the time and money on a re-fire. Explaining that your Pizza Margherita doesn’t have a lot of cheese will help in the same way and might even result in upselling extra cheese to those who can’t deal with the idea of visible sauce on their pizza. Setting customer expectations is essential for neutralizing complications before they happen.
You’ll never be able to prevent every complaint, but anticipating problems is a huge step toward avoiding them. Think about how you’re directing your disaster relief energy and consider ways you can proactively neutralize customer problems before they happen. It will save you time, money, energy and frustration so you can concentrate on making killer pizza for customers like me to rave about.
Scott Wiener is the founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City and SliceOutHunger.org.