When in trouble, call on a competitor for help

Dec. 18, 2002

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It was a dark and stormy afternoon, stormier than I'd ever seen in Santa Clara. As the remnants of a powerful Pacific typhoon pounded our area with high winds and rain, our staff at Pizza and Pipes was busy seating and serving a dining room full of customers gathered for birthday and soccer parties.

And then, at 1 p.m., the power went out.

None of our dining room customers had gotten their pizzas, and it seemed impossible that the three different orders I'd promised to a nearby ice skating rink would be delivered either.

When the power hadn't returned 30 minutes later, I told my customers the grim news that we couldn't cook their pizzas -- but they stayed anyway. Optimistic the power would return soon, several said they'd be happy to wait.

Ironically, the storm's seriousness and the lack of lights added a sense of adventure to the day and cheered everyone's mood. (Some of the customers even retrieved camping lanterns from their cars and brought them inside my store for light. The party spirit, it appeared could not be dampened by the torrential rain outside.) My customers' attitude signaled that we needed to do something extraordinary to serve them and make lemonade out of a lemon of a situation.

About a mile from my store is a Stuft Pizza shop. Using a cell phone, I called to see if the shop had power, which it did. Luckily for me, it also had no business at the time, so I asked if the staff there could lend us their ovens and handle the skating rink deliveries. The manager on duty told us to bring it on, so we packed up all our uncooked party pizzas and drove them over.

There, I cooked the pizzas in Stuft's ovens, boxed them up and brought them back to my customers. When I came through the front door with bags full of hot pizzas, the crowd erupted in a cheer. It was clear they'd had more than enough chips and bottled beverages.

As the parties left, one father told me his son's birthdays aren't always memorable since the date falls between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This birthday party, however, was one he said they never would forget.

Another customer praised our staff for being creative and resourceful in a pinch. That impressed him so much, he said, that he'd be back soon.

Relationship built

It goes without saying how grateful I was that the staff at Stuft Pizza helped us on that wind-blown afternoon, but their ready willingness bears explaining. Long before we were faced with feeding hundreds during a power outage, Stuft's owner and I had built a reliable business friendship, one that allowed us to remain competitors while helping each other when necessary.

I called on Stuft recently to handle an avalanche of unexpected orders. That day I was at work on an order for 143 pizzas to be delivered to some local schools we serve during the week. At 10 a.m., a corporate client of mine called to order 80 extra-large pizzas -- to be delivered by 12:15 p.m.

Obviously, I couldn't fill the whole order, so I promised them 40 and then arranged for Stuft to deliver the other 40.

Right after that, someone from a construction site across the street from my restaurant called to order 10 extra-large pies. Of course, I knew I couldn't fill the order because my ovens already were maxed out and we out of extra-large dough balls so, once again, I called on Stuft to help out.

Did the storm cause a loss of sales dollars? Yes. Hundreds, all told.

But the point is that we took care of the customer, even to the point of giving business away to a competitor. It allowed us to maintain our reputation for customer service amid a freak storm and on an otherwise normal business day.

I also expect that the customers we couldn't personally serve will call us back first, because they know we will take care of them one way or another.

Perhaps just as importantly, it strengthened a relationship between competitors that ultimately benefited our customers. In that situation, everyone wins.

Randy owns and operates Pizza and Pipes restaurant in Santa Clara, California. A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News noted his operation's sales have increased 13 this year, while many other restaurants in and around Silicon Valley, where his store is located, are failing.

Topics: Commentary , Independent Operation , Marketing

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