Look at your Customers

We have already seen what listening to your customers does. It improves customer service because listening to your customers is the #1 rule of marketing. By listening, we allow the customer to tell us how to make the food better, faster, and improve their overall experience. This, in turn, brings positive word of mouth advertising and increases the number of customers a business has.

But what about seeing your customer? Often times in the restaurant industry we are busy looking over numbers in the office, the chefs are busy cooking in the kitchens, and the waiting staff hardly have a moment to stop and look at the customer. Well, a recent Harvard Business Review article suggests that by watching our customers, their entire experience seems to improve. It doesn’t end there. This study also showed that the cooks or chefs had a better experience serving the customers when they also were able to watch them.


The research: Ryan W. Buell, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School; Tami Kim, a doctoral student at HBS; and Chia-Jung Tsay, an assistant professor at University College London, set up four scenarios in a real cafeteria for two weeks. In the first, diners and cooks couldn’t view one another; in the second, the diners could see the cooks; in the third, the cooks could see the diners; and in the fourth, both the diners and the cooks were visible to one another. The researchers timed the preparation and conducted surveys about the service and food. The results showed that when the cooks could see their patrons, the food quality got higher ratings. Interview by Scott Berinato

The challenge: Does the mere sight of a customer motivate you to do your job better? Defend your research.

Buell: The results were pretty compelling: Customer satisfaction with the food shot up 10% when the cooks could see the customers, even though the customers couldn’t see the cooks. In the opposite situation, there was no improvement in satisfaction from the baseline condition in which neither group could see the other. But even more striking, when customers and cooks both could see one another, satisfaction went up 17.3%, and service was 13.2% faster. Transparency between customers and providers seems to really improve service.

HBR: How did you rig it so that they could see one another?

Kim: We used iPads and set up a videoconference between the dining area and the kitchen. There was no sound and no interaction, but people on both sides could see each other.

Why do you think that improved the perception of quality?

Buell: We’ve learned that seeing the customer can make employees feel more appreciated, more satisfied with their jobs, and more willing to exert effort. It’s important to note that it wasn’t just the perception of quality that improved—the food objectively got better. During the experiment we had an observer in the kitchen taking notes and timing service. Normally, chefs would make eggs on the grill in advance, adding them to plates as needed and often overcooking them. When we turned on the screens and the chefs saw the customers, they started making eggs to order more often.

Tsay: We also tested these effects on a range of populations, from chefs to communities in remote parts of the world. We consistently found that transparency created value.

Maybe seeing the customers just raises the anxiety of the chefs, and they feel they have to do better because they’re being watched?

Kim: We considered whether transparency could have unintended costs. We found that reciprocity plays a much bigger role than stress or accountability. This is more about gratitude—which is a powerful force. Cooks constantly said how much they loved seeing their customers. Many wanted to keep the iPad setup. One said, “When the customers can see the work, they appreciate it, and it makes me want to improve.”

Buell: Being appreciated makes work meaningful. People feel what they do matters. Human connections seem to trigger that.

Tsay: We did follow-up experiments in which chefs and customers watched videos of service interactions. For customers, seeing the chefs’ work increased their perceptions of effort and improved their opinions of the service. But it didn’t matter to the chefs if the customers watched them make the meal. Just seeing the customers is what motivated them to do better.

This makes sense because at Zankou, I often watch people order the kabob plates and wait patiently and curiously for sometimes up to 20 minutes to get their plate. It somehow makes it seem more appropriate that good tasting, healthy food should take a little longer to prepare. The cooks watch the patrons and the customers watch the cooks. Everyone has each other on check. If the food is taking too long customers will often alert us and we try to speed up the process. The entire experience is better because seeing our customers makes us want to please them in every way possible.

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