You have to love the bar, restaurant, and hospitality industries.

While we believe that every business benefits from giving customers a great experience, these industries truly focus on how customers are treated.

There’s a lot we can learn from the experts in a field so closely tied to the customer experience, and Jon Taffer is no exception. Taffer is the legendary hospitality consultant of Taffer Dynamics and host of the TV show Bar Rescue.

Jon Taffer

While known for his outspoken, drill sergeant style leadership on the show, Taffer reveals his incredibly pragmatic “bar science” side in his book, Raise the Bar.

I wish I could share all of the interesting hospitality tidbits I learned—like how 74% of patrons equate restroom cleanliness with the cleanliness of a restaurant’s kitchen—but we’ll stick to some of the best lessons I found on re-thinking your customer experience strategy.

The Business of Customer Reactions

"You aren’t in the service, food, beverage, beauty, law, accounting, merchandising, technology… or whatever other industry you define as your business. I believe you’re in the business of customer and employee reactions.”

Open any textbook on the hospitality industry and you’ll be told that there are five must-haves of any successful establishment: convenience, cleanliness, quality service, great value, and safety.

As a hospitality consultant and former bar owner, Taffer knows these principles well. However, he argues that to look at them as an end goal is foolish:

"If all you need are these five basic elements to create a winner, then why do people park ten blocks away from a hot nightclub, step over puddles in its bathroom… pay three times more for a drink than the place next door, and walk through a dark parking lot in the middle of the night to get back to their car?”

These business succeed because they do a better job at selling the true product—the customer’s reaction.

This is a state of mind that many product-focused entrepreneurs find difficult to understand. Surely, if one product is “better” than another, survival of the fittest will win every time, right? You may like to believe so, but the truth is that people buy products for desired outcomes, which is why their reaction is so important.

The folks at User Onboarding have expressed this sentiment in this quirky Super Mario Bros. graphic—you’re not selling the fire-flower; you’re selling the ability to help your customers be awesome.

Mario Brothers-BeAwesome

Understanding customer reactions is about state of mind: the awareness that each and every thing you do should be tied into reaction management, or in understanding and managing how customers react to each part of the product/service experience.

Taffer has four rules for making the best decisions when it comes to managing customer reactions:

  1. Everything we do is part of a process, never a result.
  2. Every business process, step, or communication must create a positive customer reaction each and every time.
  3. That reaction is the product.
  4. Any business, no matter what it is, lives or dies by the customer reactions it creates.

This comes down to understanding what you would expect if you were on the customer side of the transaction, as well as identifying the little things you can do to create surprise and positive reactions.

Think about ordering a great product that works perfectly, but that came in the wrong color, was shipped late, is damaged, and forces you to call an unresponsive customer service center. The product delivered, but your reaction let you down—and it’s the overall reaction that matters most.

Brand Them, Not You

"You can fix the food, elevate mixology standards, improve service quality and clean what’s dirty . . . but the challenges built into themes with no audience imprison owners, and that’s a tragedy.”

It takes a second to truly understand this line of thinking. Surely, one pirate themed bar can be better executed than another, right?

True, but the desire for such a bar is impossible to change. The desire for a cleaner, faster experience always exists, but when it comes to a business’s unique offering, you need to create something people want, rather than trying to create a want for something you wish to sell.

That’s why “branding” is a silly word when it focuses on what the business owner wants to project. Remember that a brand is not based on an interior monologue.

Your brand is what your customers think of you, not what you think of you.

As entrepreneur Brian Clark would argue, nobody actually wants the "real" you. People want you to help them tell their story—and your brand’s job is to facilitate that. In that sense, your brand should reflect your customers’ shared values, not your own.

Getting to know your customers, then, becomes the most important part of your branding strategy. Taffer regularly buys research on local demographics to assess what type of person lives near the bar he’s working on. Businesses, he says, need to be conceived and built for the audience, not for the personal tastes of the owner.

In a similar fashion, online entrepreneurs need to focus on customer development in order to create easy-to-understand personas that the whole team can read and use. When you truly understand who is buying your product, then (and only then) can you create a brand that they will love.

Don’t Guess; Engineer Success

"There is no room for gut decisions in my business; my clients’ livelihoods are on the line.”

Perhaps the most fascinating lesson of the hospitality industry from an outsider’s perspective is how well-engineered all of the best bars are.

I unknowingly touched on this subject in a pricing article where I mentioned “menu engineering”—or the science of creating a menu that maximizes profits.

Taffer describes in great detail the use of price anchoring and many other elements of bar science that sound like they are straight out of a conversion rate optimization guide:

"According to one study, at a branching path the side that is illuminated more will be used by 75% of people. Use lighting to bring attention to profitable focal points, like the back of the bar.”

The most profitable bars will have clean menus that highlight items with high profit margins and will use lighting to create contrast at the back of the bar, showcasing the most popular drinks.

Bar Back Lighting

This is similar to the use of practices like the isolation effect in web design. From Taffer’s perspective, every detail needs to justify its existence, otherwise it shouldn’t exist—and I can think of many conversion experts who would agree.

The biggest crossover lesson here is that every part of the customer experience should eventually be put to the test.

In one bar, Taffer did some consumer research and found that most of the female patrons were between 23-29. He noticed that the chairs at the bar had backs—a seemingly small detail, but Taffer knew that it’s mostly older women who prefer backed chairs, as younger women want to be able to spin around and talk with people in the bar’s main area.

By simply replacing some chairs, the bar saw an increase in average time spent per customer, which lead to an increase in profits.

If you think that’s crazy, remember the online equivalent: thousands of people are hitting seemingly minor pages on your website every day—when is the last time you tested and improved your checkout, pricing, or contact pages?

Great Personalities Create Great Experiences

"The conventional interview process is bullsh*t. It focuses on experience only and not on personal dynamics.”

It’s a sentiment I’ve repeated many times and have heard echoed from support champs everywhere—customer-facing positions are best filled with people who have the right soft skills for the job.

Personality, demeanor, and social skills are integral aspects to anyone who will be regularly interacting with customers. Most, if not all, of the technical skill required for these jobs is not rocket science. The process can be taught, but changing behavior? That’s much more difficult, and it’s not worth a business owner’s time.

Taffer argues that defaulting to the “experience necessary” line of thinking makes you just as bad as any corporate operation, filled to the brim with HR suits who create employment manuals to justify their existence:

"Experience is not a factor in creating great customer reactions. Some of the worst and most dishonest employees [I’ve worked with] had both experience and professional training! I define employee greatness in terms of attitude and energy… but it seems we rarely interview for these qualities.”

Being a motivated, honest, and socially skilled “people person” is rare enough, which is why in a majority of customer-facing positions, technical skill should only be a concern after these major personality traits are evident.

This means that in order to build an exceptional team, you’ll need to get hiring right, and you’ll often learn if someone is the right personality fit upon your first meeting. Taffer starts with a simple system based around “employee adjectives,” a list of words that describes the perfect person for the job.

Consider traits needed for remote work—self-motivated certainly comes to mind. Many employees can do great work with a motivational manager, but a remote worker often has very little oversight. It’s not a would be nice personality trait; it’s a must, no matter what the position is.

Taffer reasons that a cocktail waitress for a nightclub who hits the marks of energetic, conversational, fun, and adventurous will do far better than one who has a ton of experience but has a mild, somber presence, and it’s hard to disagree.

Inside Out Marketing

"Sometimes—maybe too often—we sacrifice the possibility of excellence for predictability.”

Most of us would like to think that we support local businesses, but large corporations often nab our dollars thanks to known certainty.

Say you’re traveling in a new city and are in the mood for steak—small, local Lou’s Steak House might be the best place in the world, but like Taffer, you may end up going to Capital Grille because you know what to expect.

The only way a small business can truly fight back is through creating their own reputation by offering distinct value; the idea that a customer can only get the experience you offer from you.

What Taffer calls “Four Walls Marketing”—or marketing from the inside out—Mailchimp CEO Ben Chestnut might call the reverse funnel.

Ben Chestnut's Reverse Funnel

It’s tough, if not impossible, to go toe-to-toe with the big guys on running ads and taking hits in revenue for promotions. Instead, focus on what you can do with existing customers—making the only goal of your marketing strategy to get people talking about what you’ve done.

Just as we so often do as consumers, businesses prefer to play it safe with their marketing—sticking with traditional paid advertising rather than trying to identify ways to get the word out from within their own walls.

For example, the notoriety and well-deserved attention that Tangberry restaurant received for selling the world’s most expensive bacon sandwich—and then donating the proceeds to charity—left far more of an impact than any radio ad could ever achieve.

Gregory Ciotti
Gregory Ciotti

Greg is a writer, marketing strategist and alum of Help Scout. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.