Customer Experience – lessons from a Chaiwallah

Creativity, leadership and execution – regardless of what business you are in and how small or big your operation is, for a customer facing engagement you pretty much have to have apply these same fundamental skills. The thought came to my mind as I sat in my car waiting for our order and watched the goings on.

This was in Kolkata – the city I was born in and still have favorite eating joints that my wife and I make sure to visit on every trip back.  One such place is this incredible breakfast stall that serves the most scrumptious Indian brunch –  their selection of kachori, subzi, jilebi is easily worthy of an Anthony Bourdain episode. And then there is the Chai … While I am a huge fan of Starbucks coffee, can’t start my mornings without a Venti Pike, and get a Verona when I really need a Caffeine boost… I can bet you will never go near a Chai Latte once you’ve tried the real thing in cities in India, best experienced in little earthen pots  adding to the flavor.

But I digress…

What stands out here is the efficiency of the operation – this place is in a chaotic intersection, next to a bazaar full of weekend shoppers and packed with cars trying to outdo each other as they try to find a spot to park or beat the traffic light.  As I watched the “servers” making sure every customer has a legal parking spot, take orders, bring food up to the cars and respond almost immediately to every hand signal from about 20 cars scattered around different side streets – I couldn’t help thinking how this could be a case study for running a customer facing operation. Skillfully navigating through challenges that the environment you operate in presents, and finding creative solutions with a single minded focus on customer experience – sounds very much like the goal of any customer facing operation.

The situations of course is very different and a lot more complex in the corporate world, but the basic tenet of providing the best customer experience, in my mind, is universal – and can be summed up by the following:

Creativity with a purpose

The purpose begins with the customer. Although it is very common to talk about thinking out of the box – doing things differently just for the sake of being different is not all that helpful. Established norms in mature businesses are not always bad – there is usually a method to the madness.  But when it comes to customer experience, there is always room for improvement – you can let your creative juices flow and come up with a better way. If your customers have a hard time getting to your chai shop, by all means, bring the food to their cars and position your team carefully to watch for hand signals and react quickly. Before you attempt to improve things, it is critical that you know how things do operate – this quote from Picasso really sums it up for me – “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”. To be an effective change agent, you have to first know everything about the existing way, keep the good in place and tweak the rest – all with a single minded focus on customer experience.

Knowledge based leadership

There is no shortcut to expertise. You have to know your stuff. You have to be that expert in your domain that the customer is looking for. If you are, and you demonstrate the natural confidence that comes from expertise – your customers will follow your lead. I didn’t think twice about parking the car in a spot that I could never tell was legal. Whatever your leadership style is, your team and your customers are looking for assurance that you know what you are doing, and will provide you with the support you need for success.

Excellence in execution 

It goes without saying – no operation, least of all client facing ones, can compromise in this area. Customers need to see that you are not sparing any effort, and providing a quality product backed by quality service – do this and they will keep coming back, year after year.