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Jeff Dewar

Quality Insider

Let Customers ‘Pull’ Service on Demand

Instead of ‘pushing’ it to them at your convenience

Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 - 10:01

“Check on your customers every 10 minutes or so,” instructs the typical restaurant manager. And Deming turns in his grave again because the manager’s objective is arbirtrary.  It’s not based on the capabilities of a process or the needs of the customer. But wait—there’s a new service quality strategy emerging under the grey skies of Seattle.

I don’t know you, but I do know you’ve been in many a restaurant where you spent your well-earned money only to feel short-changed because you couldn’t get the server’s attention. When the server finally did show up, she’d already missed the sweet spot either because you ate the food as delivered, or it sat there getting cold while everyone else is nearly finished eating.

Empowering the customer

Enter a new restaurant with a better idea, an upscale burger joint, the Blazing Onion. The restaurant employs the simplest of devices (so simple it strikes me as absurd that it’s not in common use) to signal the wait staff, “Hey, come here right now, please!”

The customer places the 6-in. sign in a small metal display holder on the table so the wait staff can see it. The instructions are printed on the back, but what it boils down to is a simple policy they call “service on demand.” Once the sign is placed by a customer, one of the wait staff will appear within 30 seconds.

How simple!

Does it work? To test this, I brought in two of the most critical destructive-test process examiners I know: my children Kavan and Alanna, ages 16 and 13, respectively.  When given permission, they can break anything. So the test at the Mill Creek, Washington, Blazing Onion was on.

Up went the service alert sign, and click went the stopwatch: 19 seconds. I was impressed. So were my kids. So we tested the system twice more: 17 and 22 seconds. Our verification was satisfied. And the food was good, too.

The magnitude of this simple device could be underrated by skeptics as a simple gimmick, but really it’s a great example of strategic thinking that changes the fundamental equation of how customers are treated. It says, in effect, “You are in control of our service and therefore your dining experience,” not: “We are in control of your dining experience.”

From a quality management perspective, this is very much a lean strategy, employing a “pull” system for service, at the point of delivery, to the customer.

Using technology to improve this process, Blazing Onion CEO David Jones implemented a pager system at some of his locations. Each table has a radio unit that silently signals the wait staff, with the same 30-second guarantee. Yes, it works, although it has not been tested by Kavan and Alanna. In the interests of full disclosure, I waited 32 seconds for a server to appear, but I’m willing to chalk that up to “special cause” and not “common cause” variation. The tabletop unit also has controls for signaling the server that you are ready for your order (which was placed in the lobby, using the current ordering system) or close out your bill.

Portable service alert pager

Phase three of the Blazing Onion service-on-demand evolution will deploy an iPad at each table mounted within a small aluminum frame but untethered, which will allow customers to perform all the tasks described above, plus place their orders using a graphically rich menu. For guests who visit often, orders can be saved in a “My Blazing Onion” account for quick ordering the next time you visit—yet another facet for managing the quality of the customers’ cycle-of-service experience.



Policies that support quality

Of course the technology, whether it’s as simple as a little sign or as fancy as an iPad, must be backed by policies that govern the human behaviors supporting the whole process.

Go with the lowest-cost, most-ready resources. As is typical in all restaurants, each table at Blazing Onion is assigned its own server. However, each of the servers is assigned to a team, so when you raise your red service-alert sign, push the pager button, or touch the iPad calling for service, all servers in the team are summoned and required to respond. No, you don’t get all three servers running to your table; you get the one who is closest and most quickly available. This puts an end to the culture inherent in most restaurants of “that’s not my table.” From a quality and lean management perspective, it utilizes the resource that has the lowest cost and highest readiness to the operation.

Use a standard procedure to divvy up tips. Tips are allocated with a precise team-based formula, further creating a mutually supportive environment.

Empowering the customer to choose

What is remarkable about Blazing Onion’s service model is the array of choices it offers the customer, and I don‘t mean food choices. Service choices. This further extends the customer’s ability to “pull” service on demand. I counted four choices at the Lynnwood, Washington, restaurant. Walking through the front door, you can:

1. Order your food at the self-serve, interactive kiosk in the lobby, then ask to be seated (your food is timed to be delivered based on when you are seated).
2. If you don’t like kiosks, you can order with the cashier, located adjacent to the kiosks in the lobby.
3. Order at your table with the soon-to-be-launched iPad.
4. Order in the bar area for full service.

Kiosks in lobby

Close-up of kiosk screen

In the near future, if you order via the kiosk in the lobby while waiting to be seated, you will use the iPad at the table to let the kitchen know when to get your burger underway. If you’re hungry, push “order” as soon as you’re seated, but if you want to linger over drinks, wait as long as you like before sending your order to the kitchen.

Jones calls the ability to pre-order your food while you are waiting for a table in a crowded lobby “line busting” because it effectively eliminates ordering food at the table and reduces the overall cycle time of the dining experience—if you so choose. Quality professionals would call this a customer-centric experience in which the focus is on customer preferences, while the process takes advantage of technology to enhance communication.

A dream of service

CEO David Jones has been in food service all his career, and together with his wife, Lorri, owned six Subway franchises and had a comfortable life. But they had a dream: a restaurant that let customers decide how and when they would be served. They launched their dream on the eve of the Great Recession of 2008. Now Blazing Onion has five locations in the Greater Seattle area with a sixth on the way, employs 240 people, and is the only four-star, Yelp-rated restaurant in the Alderwood Mall area north of Seattle. What does that tell you about a service model that puts the customer in charge?

It’s still all about people

Despite Jones’ love of technology to achieve service objectives and quality standards, we noticed his staff’s relaxed friendliness and asked about it.

“It’s simple,” Jones replied. “You hire great apples. A couple of them can muster enough energy to force out the poison apples. I don’t have to do much.” Now there’s an HR policy that makes sense.

Quality Digest’s operations director, Kristine Bammert, asked Jones a few questions in the video interview below.


About The Author

Jeff Dewar’s picture

Jeff Dewar

Jeff Dewar is CEO of Millennium 360 Inc., Quality Digest’s parent company. During his career he has presented quality-related topics to thousands of people on six continents, all but Antarctica.


Do Penguins pull or push?

Sellers want to sell, hence own money, buyers - when they're not TV-doped - want to spare their money. Even Antarctica Penguins do that, their own way. I recently posed the question that ISO 9000 h) principle, that promotes an "effective partnership" between customers and suppliers, will never work. It can work effectively enough based on different principles: please refer Matthew E. May's column on Mr. Jiro's passion for his sushi, and Stan Craig's emphasis on non-for-profit business - Quality Digest, March 6. Maybe "lateral" selling will help us all to cross the river bridge, the waters of which get more and more troubled. Thank you. PS: Have you ever thought that the word "between" may have been originated by "be twin", that is, born together?

Raising the hand first

I come from a culture where raising your hand and saying "waiter" loudly is still common.  While tipping is not as customary back home, customer service using the "PULL" method does work its' wonders.

Tip Question

If I'm doing more of the work (which I don't mind) , it follows that my tip might fall accordingly.  Most people don't tip as much at buffets as they do at full service restaurants.