We have just hit the tenth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and it brought to mind an anecdote I heard from just before that period. Sir Fred Goodwin, chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), and Terry Leahy, chief executive of Tesco, were sharing a platform at a conference when the subject of “putting the customer at the heart of a business” was raised.

Apparently as they came off stage, Goodwin asked Leahy whether he really “believed all that customer guff”. Leahy continued to build a massively successful customer-centric business and earned a knighthood, while Goodwin oversaw the near death of RBS and was stripped of his.

Tesco: Customer focused

Companies all too often talk about their laser-like focus on the customer when in reality it never gets much beyond them simply talking about it with no action taken at all. I was therefore fascinated to read about a restaurant in the US that seems to take customer service to the extreme.

Waffle House is based in the state of Georgia in the heart of an area prone to hurricanes. With recent news focusing on Hurricane Florence in North Carolina, it came to light that Waffle House has become renowned as the last place to close even when the weather is nearing its worst.

The efforts of the 2,100-strong chain of eateries has seen it become a bellwether used by US authorities during storms. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has revealed it has an informal “Waffle House Index”, which is used to determine how bad the damage is in specific parts of the storm-prone region on the southern coast.

If an outlet is forced to close, the local situation is deemed “red”, if there is a limited menu available the status is “yellow” and if a restaurant is offering a full menu the index remains “green”. For Waffle House to find itself in this unusual position has taken a significant amount of effort over the years and a desire to serve its customers to a level I doubt is reflected in many other businesses.

Waffle House: Weathering the retail storm. Literally.

The company starts its annual hurricane preparations in May, before the storm season begins, putting plans in place to buy items such as generators, refrigerated trucks and portable toilets. It moves these resources around and loads as much product as possible into restaurants that are in the eye of impending storms.

The company also uses restaurants on the periphery of storm areas as temporary warehouses for those outlets in the heart of trouble zones. When the storm passes, Waffle House trucks in essential supplies such as bottled water and cleaning products to help return the outlets to normal.

This stay-open-at-all-costs mindset has ensured Waffle House has a special place in the hearts of the people in these storm-ridden regions. They have a loyalty to the business based on its commitment to serve them whatever the weather. It brings to mind the position pubs found themselves in during the Second World War, in London particularly, when great efforts were made to keep up morale by only closing pubs as a last resort.

This prompted a renaissance for the pub after a tough period during the First World War, when drunkenness was deemed inappropriate. This unique British institution was seen to play a crucial role in fostering community spirit and during this period it began to enjoy rising numbers of female customers for the first time.

With many foodservice companies having a tough time at the moment, I wonder how many of them have thought about how focused they are on their customers and how often they deliver a level of service that goes beyond the call of duty.

Clearly Waffle House takes this to the absolute extreme and sets a benchmark companies outside storm-ridden countries would find hard to emulate. However, its actions should at the very least prompt hospitality businesses to consider what they stand for and what they deliver to their customers.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.

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