At the far end of an out-of-the-way aging strip shopping center in southern Louisiana, there stands a small and modest sushi restaurant. The exterior could be described as tasteful minimalistic: there are no big signs, no flashy advertising, and the word “fancy” would never be used to describe it. Inside, it is a small space, seemingly purposeful in its meager size, small enough to allow a normal-voice conversation across the entire breadth of the space.
Once inside, patrons are greeted personally by the owner, Mr. Chen. From his perch behind the sushi counter, Mr. Chen can see and converse with everyone in his small establishment. After preparing the food, he personally asks each customer how they are enjoying their meal. He also answers his own phone, jotting down a steady stream of call-in orders throughout the dinner hour. When a patron is ready to pay, he stops what he is doing to walk around to the front counter and take the customer’s payment.
On my first visit there, I was instantly a fan of this place. The menu was just full enough to offer variety without an overwhelming maze of options, and the quality of the food and the presentation was as good as any sushi restaurant I’ve ever visited. However, as an advocate of efficiency and automation, I must admit that I left from there after my first visit thinking about the process improvements that could be made. With the exception of physically bringing the food to the table, he handled the entire customer interaction himself. He doesn’t take orders online, does not partner with any food delivery companies, and personally handles the slow checkout process (made even slower by the seemingly dial-up speed of the credit card machine). If it were me, I said to myself, I would hire staff to handle those other tasks, perhaps bring in another sushi chef, and expand in the digital world to double or triple my business.
On my second visit, it hit me: this slow and interactive part of his business must be purposeful.
The personal touch
During that second visit, I observed that every single dine-in customer that walked in knew him by name. One of them made a comment that suggested he visited the establishment every week. Mr. Chen called a couple of the customers by name, even remembering verbatim the preferred meal of one of those customers. Each of these patrons appeared more interested in a expertly prepared food than a quick and efficient dining process. Obviously, the formula works: this business owner knows his customers, and has established loyalty with them. Sure, he may be losing out on a fast-paced dining crowd that demands immediate service and electronic ordering options, but those customers with whom he has bonded keep coming back.
You will rarely hear me make an argument against automation, but to watch Mr. Chen in action, to see him interacting with his loyal customers, gives me a new appreciation for those who purposefully keep the personal interaction as part of their business. I am planning to expand my company in the coming year, and I plan to borrow a page from Mr. Chen’s playbook to keep that personal touch with every single client even as we grow. While automating some tasks is good and necessary, I hope to never grow to the point that our clients feel like a cog in the machine.
Thank you, Mr. Chen, for the reminder that it’s perfectly fine to do business personally. You can now count me as one of your loyal customers.
This post was originally published in my Data Geek Newsletter.