Wanted—Premium Service in NE Ohio

By Andrew J. Birol, President, Birol Growth Consulting, Inc.

Last month my assertion that Ohio businesses need a little more New York attitude to compete successfully in a challenging regional economy raised some eyebrows, generated a lot of responses and got picked up by Crain's Cleveland. This month I want to turn to an issue that some of you will agree is more within our control.

Why is it so hard to get a medium-rare steak in Northeast Ohio?

Having been to enough barbecues, I know that some Ohioans (just like everyone) like a little ash with their meat but restaurant ovens are the same everywhere. I can't count the number of times, whether dining in an elegant, upscale setting or at a no-frills chop shop, that I’ve been faced with the choice of sending the steak back to the kitchen or paying for a chewy meal I don't enjoy. When I do tell the waiter to return my plate to the chef, I am too often taken aback by his being taken aback. Have I insulted his manhood, committed some breach of etiquette? His politeness doesn't hide his obvious desire to roll his eyes and mutter, What does this guy expect?

Well, I expect to get what I ordered. I expect the service and delivery to merit the level of the menu, prices and decor. And medium rare means medium rare.

No matter what type of business you run, the way you treat customers defines your business. This is particularly true for people in a service profession, whether it be waiting tables or managing investment portfolios. My search for a true medium-rare steak—and yes, they teach it in chef school—illustrates an unfortunate fact about Northeast Ohio. As a region, we too often expect, provide and accept second-rate service.

There's an old saying which is the mission statement of the Ritz Hotel chain: “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” Their patrons expect excellent, elegant, attentive service; moreover, the hotel requires it. If you pay a premium price, premium service must be part of the deal and it is best delivered by those who view service as an admirable profession, a career choice that demands of them a level of confidence, knowledge, expertise and class. If I'm going to pay upwards of $30 for a cut of meat, I not only want a little blood in the center, I want a server who knows her menu, who confidently recommends a bottle of wine, who anticipates the needs of the table before we voice them and who wraps up the leftovers in the kitchen rather than tossing a plastic box and a Wet Nap in my lap. (If I wanted to do my own dishes, after all, I'd just stay home.) And it really is no different when one dines at Bob Evans; the only difference is that good service is more likely to happen at Bob Evans. The greeting, the constant refilling of coffee and the merchandizing juggernaut at the checkout counter may be annoying, but you do leave with the feeling that, as Sally Field would say, “You really like me!”

I challenge you to find more than a couple of restaurants in Cleveland who consistently deliver great service. More commonly we see servers assuming a subordinate role that detaches their efforts from the experience the customer is buying. When a server dumps a plate in front of you and checks back minutes later with a rote question—"Was everything okay?”—you are not really expected to answer.

If our region believes that “mediocre” is acceptable, our region will deliver mediocrity, thus creating an opening for an outside entity to swoop in and provide the kind of service that will dazzle (and steal) our customers. This isn’t limited to dining out; I see mediocrity across the service field, particularly in financial services, where professionals too often take the attitude that they are paid to do what the client says. For example:

  • An accountant spots a problem in the company's reporting but is too afraid of alienating the client to call it to his attention.
  • A middle market banker, enthusiastic about a company&39;s cash flow, overlooks the waning nature of the creditor&39;s marketplace and fails to notice the company is overstating the value of its inventory.
  • An M& A firm remains fixated on a client's EBITA (Earnings Before Interest, Tax and Amortization) and does not see the true and undervalued worth of the company’s products and customer loyalty.

Service professionals are charged with guarding their clients' best interest, but too often they act like robots, clicking numbers into spreadsheets, avoiding risk and, therefore, challenge and opportunity. Our region's tradition of genteel competition is no competition at all; it is a “go along to get along” attitude that exposes our area to invasion by national service firms, to whom Cleveland represents a big, ripe market.

How do we prevent this from happening? First, we need to shake off the blue collar roots (and accompanying expectations) of our region and start expecting excellent service. As providers of service, whether in restaurants, retail stores, CPA firms or consulting, we must become trusted advisors who think beyond the task and focus on the ends that will best serve our clients. In the final analysis, after all, the people who are most hurt by mediocrity are our customers … and by sacrificing excellence, we hurt our economy, our region and ourselves.

Articles by Birol Growth Consulting are © copyrighted and all rights are reserved. However, articles may be reprinted with prior written consent if attribution is included as follows:

© Copyrighted by Andrew J. Birol, President of Birol Growth Consulting, who helps owners grow their businesses by growing their Best and Highest Use ®. Andy can be reached at (412) 973-2080 , by email at abirol@andybirol.com, or on the web at www.andybirol.com.

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