OPINION: Pizza companies must use service to differentiate themselves

Aug. 19, 2003

Several friends of mine were saddened this week when Hawley-Cooke Booksellers, a Louisville, Ky.-owned and operated three-store operation, was sold to the behemoth Borders chain.

Local invasions by Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble over the past decade surely drained Hawley-Cooke's customer base, and though the company's sale price hasn't been released, my guess is Borders didn't cut the local boys a sweet deal. Chances are Hawley-Cooke sold out before it was strangled out of business.

Hawley-Cooke's good service probably helped it hang on as long as it did; it really was a friendly and familiar place. But in a market economy, price matters a lot, which is where the small company no longer could compete.

But as much as I liked Hawley-Cooke, I'm not sad about its sale. Since I bought my first book online from Amazon.com five years ago -- at 10:30 p.m. and in my skivvies (sorry for the visual, but we journalists must strive for realism) -- I've hardly darkened Hawley-Cooke's doors.

Steve Coomes, Editor

Amazon gives me exactly what I want: 24-hour access to a mind-boggling range of products sold at a fair price and delivered to my door. The only way another bookseller could steal me away from Amazon is to offer to read the book to me as I doze off to sleep. Their service is that good and I'm that pleased.

Has your pizza place's service so won over your customers?

The blandwagon

Let's face it, a great deal of pizza sold in the U.S. is nearly homogeneous. And because much of it tastes and looks the same, the way it gets marketed is by price, because that's the only point of differentiation. Moving lots of it means moving it cheaply.

Problem is, that formula isn't working like it used to in the pizza industry, partly because most everyone's trying it. Low prices do move lots of pizza out the door, but in the long term, low prices don't create loyal customers. They only reinforce a price-shopping mentality that keeps customers around until they get a cheaper deal from the next shop.

So then, how do you make your operation stand out from the crowd if your product tastes and looks like others and costs the same? As far as I can see, there's only one differentiator left, and that's service.

Some good examples

Make service useful: Just last week I bought a couple of cut-rate, run-of-the-mill pizzas en route to a friend's house. I didn't expect the pies to be spectacular, and given that my friend and I were without our wives and feeding our young sons, it didn't matter much.

I called to place my order, was greeted by a very friendly and efficient order-taker and was told my pizzas would be ready in six minutes.

I knew such speed meant my pizza was parbaked, but that was fine. The pizzas were ready when we arrived, I paid the still-friendly order-taker and was on my way in about one minute.

As you might expect, the pizza was bland, but such speedy service was useful to me at that moment. Next time I'm in a hurry, I know which operation I can rely on to get me in and out fast.

Streamline it like Amazon.com: No, I'm not promoting everything be done on the Internet, but I am suggesting you find ways to streamline every aspect of your customer service.

Having someone ask, "Would you like the same pizza you had last time, Mr. Coomes?" is a great service, but one that requires the investment in a solid POS system.

To those holdouts who still don't own one: spend the bucks. Those machines are invaluable and will pay for themselves if you milk them for their marketing advantages alone.

Keeping my debit card number in the POS also moves pizza buying closer to that "one-click shopping" standard set by Amazon. All an order taker need do is ask, "May I put that on your card again?" and it's done.

Don't waste coupons and mailers on me. I have neither the time nor the desire to look through them, so get my e-mail address and send me your specials that way. (Amazon knows the book authors I read most, and it occasionally sends me e-mail notices about their new works or about sales on their old works. Targeted marketing gets no better than that.)

Also, get a Web site and put your menu online. That allows me to be prepared when I order, which also means I get off your phone line much faster.

Personalize your service: A few weeks ago I went to a sit-down pizza restaurant with a stellar reputation. My expectations were high, and the server largely met them. But what made her service truly memorable were the small things, like the way she talked to children sitting at tables outside her station; they weren't a nuisance to her, she doted on them, told them they were cute -- and some weren't behaving well at all.

Later, when she gave me a to-go box for my pizza, she wrote a simple thank-you, followed by her first name and a hand-drawn smiley face.

We later found out that she taught grade school and was waiting tables during the summer. Suddenly, I saw the connection between her love of kids and the smiley face (you've seen it, the kind all teachers draw on their students' reports), which showed me how genuinely sweet she was. Though she wasn't the greatest server I've ever seen, I'll ask for her when I return there because she was so pleasant.

And it'll be easy to ask for her, too, because she was smart enough to put her name on the box.

That's service made memorable.

Topics: Commentary , Service

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