These days, all major companies are striving, sometimes desperately, to achieve something which comes much easier to smaller firms - excellence of customer service. Not that such excellence is easy for customers to find: everywhere, lip-service is more common than superb service.

That's an extremely valuable truth. If everybody else is falling well below customers' expectations, you can achieve business breakthroughs by merely satisfying them - while delighting the customers (by exceeding those expectations) can make your fortune, even your fame.

There's a delicatessen on Mission Street, San Francisco, which is now known world-wide, simply because Tom Peters, the inconoclastic management guru, uses it as a supreme example of what he calls 'service with soul'. He also praises an Italian restaurant for the self-same soulfulness: and catering is, very obviously, a business where service can make all the difference.

That is assuredly the case with Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate. The company won last year's Customer First Award for sales between £1 million and £10 million, thanks to five tea-shops: in Harrogate, Ilkley, Northallerton and York, where two cafés, respectively Bettys and Taylors, are a mere sixty yards apart - reflecting the merger which created the present company.

Managing director Jonathan Wild comes from the Bettys side, founded by his great-uncle in 1919. Keen rivals in tea-shops, they had different core businesses: Bettys, says Wild, was 'a bakery at heart', while Taylors imported tea and coffee. When Taylors ran out of family, the union created a 'very self-sufficient business'.

That history provided one important ingredient of the service recipe: time. Excellence doesn't hinge on slick systems. You should have those, anyway, but they won't do the trick without the right approach: 'the spirit of service and the desire to please.' Trying to develop that culture at speed will fail - 'you can't do it overnight.'

By the same token, seekers after service can never relax. It's a long-haul process. But certain elements are needed immediately, starting with 'rigorous training on and off the job, especially of front-of-house staff'. The job - waiting, for example - must be treated as a profession; mastery of the basics and product knowledge are sine qua nons.

Dealing with people is itself a professional skill. The ability to put yourself in other people's shoes is the essential foundation, and caring is the prime objective. Customers will quickly notice 'if you don't really care, and don't get pleasure from serving them'. That won't happen unless the staff themselves get caring treatment.

Bettys and Taylors puts 'a lot of effort' into looking after its staff, whose turnover is 'so low that we don't even bother to measure it.' People are organised into small teams, none larger than a dozen and some numbering only three: the average is seven, each with a team leader. Wild thinks of the teams as 'families' within the family business.

Team leaders come under a departmental manager, who in turn reports to a general manager. The next level up is that of the directors, including Wild and his wife. That's five layers, which doesn't quite fit today's fashionable emphasis on 'flat, flat, flat' structures: but that's a result of Wild's strong preference for 'small work groups with a leader who has time for you.'

Making time for people inside the company is another key to excellence of service. Wild insists on his management being 'very, very accessible.' New recruits, for example, have an induction day, which starts and ends by meeting with Wild: in between they tour the entire business and play customer for lunch in one of the cafés.

That's a 'soft' element, as opposed to the 'hard' issues of portion control, equipment, lay-out, etc. When service aces explain their success, soft elements predominate in their formulas, which makes it tempting to think that having fun (on which Tom Peters is ardent) and caring are all that matters. They do matter enormously, but the hard issues are also critical.

As Wild says, you won't succeed without meticulous 'attention to detail' and insistence that everything is 'just right'. That won't work, either, if you think that detail is the business of the staff. 'It starts with the proprietor and the management.'



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