There’s an extensive list that needs to be checked off in order to create a successful hospitality business. If you’re running a restaurant, most of the items on this list consist of location, food, drinks, atmosphere and social media presence…to name a few.

Something that most restaurants neglect to consider is the longevity of the business. The food and drink aspects may be there, but have your employees been trained to deliver personal, meaningful experiences that leave guests talking about your business and referring your location to others?

Baro’s General Manager, Colin Denton, has over 10 years in restaurant management experience and opened one of Toronto’s best restaurants with Cactus Club at First Canadian Place. Baro partner, Michel Falcon, sat down with him to discuss how any hospitality business can achieve success by creating customer loyalty. The video is below, with the text transcript following.

Michel: In this interview I’m sitting down with Baro’s General Manager, Colin Denton, to share the best tips to create customer loyalty in the hospitality industry. Colin, thank you so much for sitting down with me. Let’s start, high level: who are you? How did your career begin?

Colin: Growing up I always knew I wanted to be in business. I was fortunate enough to have an uncle who was a very successful entrepreneur so I was always trying to find a way to get my in with business leadership and management and decided to travel when I was 19 like all the young little punks do and came across the restaurant industry in Australia and fell in love with it and came back to Canada and got involved with Cactus Club where I was with them for 11 years and was the General Manager at of 4 of their locations. An opportunity came this year at the end of August to come join the team here at Baro.

Michel: So Cactus Club has been recognized as one of the best workplaces in British Columbia and I believe in Canada as well too, what makes an organization like Cactus Club or 1-800-GotJunk?, a place I used to work, what makes them such good employers?

Colin: I think first and foremost, they put their employees first and that’s the most important thing they do. Everything is “how can we make this a great experience for the employees?” and company culture as well. I would say, for me, in the forefront for company culture for young employers and I think that’s important. It’s important for young employees to be proud of where they work.

Michel: You and I have spoken about this many times; it’s obvious having happy employees is probably a good thing. So if we know it’s important, not just you and I, but entrepreneurs and business professionals, why doesn’t everybody focus on it, genuinely?

Colin: I think because people get caught up in profit and when you cut corners to make extra cash, it’s at the discredit of your employees. Sometimes people get an eye on that dollar sign and that kind of sways their decisions to put that in front of their employees.

Michel: When you joined Baro, what were some of the things that motivated you to elevate the guest experience and to create that customer loyalty? what were some things you couldn’t wait to get your hands in and some systems to build?

Colin: I think this industry is changing a lot. Over the past 5 or 6 years I’ve seen a huge change, especially coming from the West Coast to the East Coast, where customer service is starting to become number one and that was something, in terms of Ontario, I really wanted to get my hands on was trying to find ways to get people to come down to restaurants because of the service. The food and the vibe are a great by-product and things that need to be great, but when your customer service is great and people are coming back for the people that work there, I think that’s a huge thing that will separate us from the industry.

Michel: You moved here from British Columbia to Ontario, and if I heard you correctly, you mentioned the service out west might be a little bit different or a bit better, do you feel that to be true and if so, why?

Colin: 100%. I think because the west coast has created that chain mentality, where you do have those big company corporate cultures with funding behind them, I really think they do have that customer-first, employee-first mentality where they really do look to go above and beyond for service to try to generate those people to come back as regulars.

Michel: What tip to create customer loyalty would you give to that small business owner, that entrepreneur, that owns one location that maybe has 5 team members or 10 team members?

Colin: I think that the biggest thing is recognizing that good service is the norm. People come in and they get what they expect and I think that’s not really memorable anymore. You need to be creating a bit of a budget for you and your team to be able to do things above and beyond to create those micro customer experiences.

Michel: And so, if I heard you correctly, it’s more so the mentality first and then the tactical stuff like building strategies?

Colin: Ya 100%. I think it’s allowing your employees to know that it’s okay to do those kinds of things and it’s okay to spend a little bit of money to create those regulars and that’s the biggest thing. Letting them know that yes you can go above and beyond and yes you can spend $20 on something to show your guests that you really do care.

Michel: So the hospitality industry can be a trendy one, and someone might be working while in university or as a part-time thing, how do you get those people who see it as a transit industry to fully commit to the brand and take care of customers and create that customer loyalty?

Colin: You involve them in the decisions. That’s the biggest thing for me. Whenever we’re making change or trying to implement a new strategy I think involving your frontline employees is the most important thing so that they can feel like they’re part of the project and they can feel like they’re part of change.

Michel: What are some tips to finding great people in the hospitality industry?

Colin: Never hire on desperation, that’s my number one tip.

Michel: Let me interrupt you for a second. I just had a conversation with an entrepreneur while traveling and he said all these hiring systems sound great, but what about the time you absolutely need someone, do you not hire and ask team members to work longer shifts? What do you do?

Colin: Ya, I would do that for sure. I would address your team and let them know that you are short staffed and that they’ll have to work a little bit extra for now. As soon as you hire in desperation it starts to lower the level of service that you have and create a little turmoil amongst your staff and I would say the biggest de-motivator for great staff is working for employees who don’t care as much.

Michel: Well said. What type of things are you looking for when you interview someone to join your team?

Colin: It’s all about culture and attitude. Skill set is something that I believe can be taught, we really pride ourselves on a world-class training program here at Baro, and you can teach anyone how to do the job, you can’t teach great personality and you can’t teach someone to give genuine care to a stranger for a great experience.

Michel: As a consumer, what brands do you admire for their level of service, whether it’s in the hospitality industry or not?

Colin: I would say, coming from the company, Cactus Club is one that goes above and beyond, and it’s obviously working for that company. I admire what they’ve done over the past 10 years. Out of the industry, I would say Lululemon. Going in there, there’s always a great experience, they’re very knowledgeable about their product and you can tell, genuinely, that they’re staff are bought in to Lululemon, what they do, who they are, and what they stand for.

Michel: If you were to hire any celebrity to take care of your guests, who would it be and why?

Colin: Justin Timberlake. He’s very talented, obviously: great singer, actor, great athlete. He’s pretty well-rounded. He’s a funny guy. He’d be that magnetic personality. I could see people coming in and wanting to be around him.

Michel: Is the customer always right?

Colin: No

Michel: Have there been times where you’ve had to fire a customer?

Colin: Yea, when you put your employees first, I think any customer that talks down to our staff, is rude, maybe says unwanted remarks, or genuinely is just asking for things we cannot execute and is very rude about that, I think that’s a time you can ask a customer to not come back.

Michel: Earning customer loyalty is about getting better at what you do each day. How do you leverage customer feedback to increase the intelligence of the company and set expectations?

Colin: I think transparency. Finding ways to share with your staff every review that comes in, meeting monthly or quarterly to review all your online reviews and talk about strategies on how you can fix the issues that come up.

Michel: If somebody complains on social media that happens to go viral, what role do you play?

Colin: For myself, as the role of General Manager, I want to play the role of empathy and I want to make sure that I do whatever I can within my power to rectify that issue, to reach out to that individual personally, just to get that feedback and show that person that we will make change and that we take their feedback seriously and that this is how we grow is by learning about these things moving forward. For me the most important part of that would be to show that person 1-on-1 that we care about their feedback and that we’re making change.

Michel: What about somewhere with 10 locations? Do you still have the bandwidth to do that, can you scale that? Or do you train that next layer of leadership to fill those shoes.

Colin: I think you try and find those different levels of that feedback and I think you do need to scale. That’s the most important thing, you can’t be everywhere at once so I think you put in different layers of the feedback. If it’s positive feedback or just a little thing and we would find ways to deem what is big and what is small, then I think it would be ok to have someone in a specific location reply to that. If we do get to a point where we get to 10 stores, then there is a time where someone from the top replying is important.

Michel: If I’m reporting to you and I was a bartender or server, what tips would you give me to improve my skill set to increase that customer loyalty?

Colin: I think encouraging feedback in the restaurant would be number one. Getting coaching from a guest is very important and finding a way to build that relationship with your guest to the point where they feel comfortable giving feedback at the end, positive or negative and taking that feedback and genuinely doing something about it. Not only making sure we fix that issue before they leave the building but learning and growing as an employee to make sure we don’t make those same mistakes and making sure those issues don’t come up again. I think that’s the most important thing, not only do you learn from experience, but you learn from constructive feedback.

Michel: What are some barriers to achieving customer loyalty in this industry? You mentioned earlier that it’s being too focused on profit and then being transactional, but what are some other barriers that are going to stop an organization from gaining true customer loyalty, whether it’s in this industry or another?

Colin: Not investing in labour would be a big one. So that goes back to the profit thing and not having enough people on the floor to be able to slow down and to see what is happening and give staff that time to build relationships with guests to create loyalty. If there’s not enough people on the floor, they won’t have time to build a relationship, they’re just going to be reactive rather than proactive to try and build a relationship.

Michel: The relationship between Face of House and Heart of House staff has to be strong on both ends to deliver an exceptional customer experience which will earn customer loyalty. What tips do you have for any FOH management or team members to establish a stronger relationship?

Colin: Engage. I think the biggest thing is to know everyone’s name and engage and be able to give them feedback and talk about the night. I think doing incentives that include the Face of House and Heart of House, we have different games where we’ll encourage sales through a bingo or a sales contest or whatever, but I think the biggest thing when you do those things is to involve the heart of house so they can build a relationship with each other, cheer each other on and celebrate when they achieve a goal.

Michel: So you mentioned remembering names. What tips do you have for somebody with a business that has 100 or 200 people, how do you remember names?

Colin: You start small. I think the biggest thing is each shift, by the end of your shift you should try to have everyone’s name remembered from that shift. For me, it’s repeating it constantly after I meet someone. Not just disregarding it after the handshake and moving on to something, but spending that 30 seconds after just repeating in your head over and over again and addressing that person by their name the next time you see them again. If you can’t remember, try asking someone else to help you figure it out. I think if you work shift by shift, try to make sure that everyone’s name is memorized, then it only takes a couple weeks and you have everyone down.

Michel: Can a restaurant in this industry survive only by having a great product?

Colin: Temporarily yes, but not long-term. The times are changing, great food is very important and a great design is very important but it’s not every guest’s number one anymore. People go to restaurants for 3 different reasons. Whether it be the food of the restaurant, the vibe of the restaurant or the service, and everyone’s different in terms of what’s number one, but I think nowadays where there’s a lot of restaurants and they’re hitting on all three, if you’re not great at 1 or 2, there’s a long-term effect for them.

Michel: What advice do you have for that viewer or listener who wants to create that change that you talked about (taking care of your customers & earning customer loyalty) but who is resistant or living on legacy and is pushing back, what advice to have for them to get over that barrier?

Colin: In order to make a change in the restaurant, everyone needs to be bought in. I think spending time with that person to show them the benefits of that change and how that looks and trying to educate them a bit on why change is good and what’s the end product. How is that going to benefit the business to really get them to show what that looks like. There’s a book I always reference when trying to make a change, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni, and I think the biggest thing is getting everyone bought in and being able to have healthy debate but at the end of the day if someone is pushing back they’re never going to make change. There’s always going to be a clog in the chain that’s going to stop you from getting full buy-in from your team.

Michel: What’s the one dysfunction from that book that really hits home?

Colin: Absence of trust! I think that’s the biggest one. Just like I alluded to. If people don’t trust the process you’re never going to make change.

Michel: My last question, what is your favourite restaurant you’ve ever eaten at regardless of city or country?

Colin: It’s funny because we’re about to embark on an Argentinian barbeque on our rooftop but there’s a place in Los Cabos called Chamuyo, and it’s outdoor only with a nice Argentinian barbeque. To this day, it’s the best restaurant experience I’ve ever had.

If you’d like to learn more from Colin, he may be contacted through email at colin@barotoronto.com.

Thank you for reading!

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