Customer Appreciation Night

By Dave Ostrander

Eighty percent of my sales comes from twenty percent of the households in my town. This eighty-twenty rule probably fits your operation as well. I was made aware of this phenomenon after computerizing my pizzeria several years ago. The system tracks every order by phone number. This allows me to find out who is buying my pizza and who's not. Over half of my sales come from just five hundred phone numbers. The remaining four thousand numbers puzzle me. They are infrequent or, heavens forbid non-customers. You will never have all the business, so let's concentrate on maintaining this very valuable base. The following marketing strategy concentrates on this group.

After reading T. Scott Gross' book, Positively Outrageous Service, I was inspired to do an unheard of thing. Thank my regular customers in an outrageous way. During my monthly team meeting I asked my crew if they would work for tips only, on a to be announced day. "Stay with me on this one while I explain the big picture" I pleaded as they collectively rolled their eyes. They have gotten used to my Guerilla Marketing mentality over the years but this one really got them nervous. "What do you mean work for tips only, this is a pizzeria we don't get tips". "Only the drivers get tips." They all thought I had lost touch with reality and some of them said so. I explained. "Next month is our anniversary month.

We traditionally do some very aggressive advertising to put the screws to our competition, and maintain a high community profile." This year will be the same but instead of discounting ourselves to the point of non-profitability, I've got a plan to thank our regulars and have a lot of fun at the same time." I'm going to give away, absolutely free, every single order on a day next month. I'm going to really get this town talking about us. I'm going to surprise everyone because they won't know it's free until after they order their meal. I'll print up a letter thanking them for their loyalty and gently tell them that you are working for tips only that night. This will either guilt or happy trip them to be a big tipper.

I have worked in the cost of food for the night in the advertising budget, but I can't afford labor cost on top of that. I feel that you will do better than your hourly wage because people are really good at heart, especially our great customers. I may be wrong but my gut says this will work.

Are you with me? By the time I had delivered this impassioned speech, and had answered their questions I was pumped up. This got their juices going, so by the time I passed out a sign up sheet, strictly voluntary mind you, all but one of my twenty one employees had agreed to work for free, tips only, for some night in the near future.

Craig Allen was the only hold out. He wasn't ready to make less than his guaranteed seven dollars an hour. The permission my team gave me, by agreeing to gamble with their wages, was the biggest hurdle I had get over. They were excited and had personal ownership of the success of the promotion. This let's the team play, and play is fun.

My manager and I retreated to the office and looked at the calendar. Our first task was to choose the best day of month to be our Customer Appreciation promotion day. I chose a Friday, two weeks away. My manager whined, "Dave, we barely can keep up on Fridays now. Let's do it on a Monday." We tossed the best date around and he agreed with me after I explained to him my point of view. "The reason I think Friday is better is our goal is to astound as many customers as possible in the shortest period of time." He agreed especially after I reminded him his labor cost percentage would be zero for the shift, and he could schedule everybody any anybody he wanted to.

I had several tasks left on my list. I called my speedy printer, composed the hand out letter and ordered a thousand copies. I then called my florist and asked to borrow a large glass, fish bowl style, terrarium. I then left a voice mail for my food DSR pitch him for some free samples to offset the cost of the event. It was time for me to call in some favors. He was very generous and obliging. With a few changes in prep levels and scheduling we were ready to go.

The best promotions always have at least three of the following four components.

  • Unexpected
  • Unadvertised
  • Outrageous
  • Invites the customer to play

Let's now fast forward actual promotion day. Friday, October 14th. The staff is arriving for the normal four o'clock shift change. They notice that almost everybody is scheduled. The real tip off is the duct tape over the time clock. This is it! No one can make an outgoing phone call. We don't want to let the secret out just yet. Time will soon take care of that! The crew is given a typed copy of the rules of engagement.

They are:

  1. You are not allowed to tip off your family or close friends of this event.
  2. All customers will be quoted the normal price of their order for all deliveries. When the driver presents them with the letter at the door they will be shocked.
  3. All dine in and carry out customers will be rung up at the cash register as usual. After they go for their wallet and the money comes out they will be handed the letter. Again, unexpected and outrageous. We will point out the working for tips only portion and invite them to put money in the huge fish bowl next to the cash register.
  4. All delivery drivers will swear a solemn oath not to hold out tips and immediately, after returning from delivery feed the fish bowl.
  5. All tips will be counted at the end of the shift. The grand total will be split equally amongst every employee on a dollar per man-hour basis.
  6. Crewmembers are required to remember to pay all taxes on their own.
  7. We will always be aware that this random, free night is to foster loyalty and good will to our customers.
  8. Non-customers will hear of this event and possibly try to take advantage of our generosity. We will deal with them on an individual basis, striving to convert them to a customer for life.
  9. We will be legendary and have fun.

I'll never forget the first family who arrived for dinner at around four thirty. Mom and Dad and three little kids. Our service style resembles any burger place. Order off the menu, get your own soft drink and place setting and proceed to the register. Pay for your meal, seat yourself and the food will be brought out to you. The guest check came to around eighteen dollars. The cashier said, "On a normal day this order would be eighteen dollars, but today is your lucky day", and handed them a copy of the letter.

They read in disbelief and amazement. Dad exclaimed, "I can't believe it, you mean to tell me that our entire dinner is for free? I've never gotten anything for free in my life."

We assured him it was our special way to say thanks for being our customer, we really appreciate your business. He looked towards my crew and asked, "are you guys really working for tips only?" Ten heads nodded affirmation as he dropped a ten spot in the bowl and was last seen muttering to himself as found his table. For the next seven hours this scenario repeated itself. Our guests were blown away. We also seized the opportunity to work the dining room. You could feel the excitement, it was electric. We had invited the customer to play.

By five p.m. we were getting busy and delivery was kicking in. The drivers were returning to the restaurant and were scrutinized by the cooks until they coughed up their tips to the bowl. Some drivers were not doing well and we had to coach them to actually explain the letter at the doorstep, pointing out you know what. By six p.m. we had made over a hundred pizzas, countless salads and soft drinks.

Here comes the fun stuff. Our delivery customers are calling their friends and neighbors and at our invitation telling everybody that Big Dave's is giving away free pizza tonight. We were ready for this. A typical phone conversation would go like this.

Paul: Thanks for calling Big Dave's, this is Paul speaking, may I help you?
Customer: I'd like to order four large pizzas with everything on them.
Paul: Will that be a pickup or delivery?
Customer: Make that a delivery to 123 Main St.
Paul: Great, that's four large pizzas with everything on them, we call that a Big Dave's Special. The total will come to $ 49.65 and we'll have them their in less than thirty minutes. Would you care for anything else, some soft drinks or an order of our famous bread sticks?"

Mr. Customer will reply something like this, "Whadda you mean forty nine bucks. My neighbor, Denny Mollard called my up just five minutes ago and told me you were giving away free pizza tonight. In fact he read me a letter over the phone. Was he kidding me or what? He's such a kidder I never know when to believe him." We reply, "In fact Mr. Mollard did receive free pizza tonight, he's one of our best customers and this is customer appreciation night."

"Well is my order free or not?" asks the customer. At this time we know we talking to a friend of a regular customer that would like to take advantage of a good thing. Since this person will probably hang up and never call back if I don't offer some options, and it's my primary goal to thank my regulars and possibly garner new customers I tell a little fib. It goes like this: "I just don't know if your order is free tonight. We couldn't afford to give the whole night away. Every other order is absolutely free."

"Well is my order free?" I answer: "That's decided at the back door as the delivery drivers get their printouts, the even numbered orders are free and the odd numbered orders pay full price. Please allow me to make a suggestion. Let's order one Big Dave's Special instead of four. The price on that would be only $14.70. You have to ask yourself that famous Dirty Harry question. 'Is this your lucky day?' You know what? I have a special feeling about your order, even though I don't personally dispatch the drivers I'm asking you to go for it."

At this point one of two things will happen. The caller will cancel the order entirely or, hopefully, play along. If the caller reduces the order to a realistic amount the order is free, and he will call a friend. If he chooses to not play, hangs up in your ear or cancels, don't take it personally, you've lost nothing. You never had him in the first place. Within the first couple of hours amazing things will happen. You will hate me and wished you had never considered this promotion. Just kidding. If you love to have a good time, get your employees and customers really interacting, this one is for you! This story will be repeated hundreds and hundreds of times for months! People can't wait to tell the world a story of what happened to them, very good or very bad. It's the most delicious way I know to invite people to play, and get customer loyalty for life.

The night flew by. At eleven p.m. my manager asked me "When are we gonna shut this down? We're getting close to running out of dough, sauce and cheese." I tell him: "Lets shut it down in fifteen minutes. How busy have we been?" His reply was "We've made over six hundred pizzas in the past four hundred minutes. We're pushing two hundred deliveries, but you know what? The crew is so pumped up they don't want to stop. Especially after watching that fishbowl fill up with money. By the way, how many fifty-dollar bills did you put in the bowl?" I said, "I didn't put any in. I seeded the bowl with twenty dollars at four o'clock."

"Dave" he said "there are at least three fifties, maybe four in the bowl. The crew has been eyeballing them all night." I was astounded. You would have to try real hard to spend fifty dollars in my place. I couldn't conceive of a customer actually tipping fifty bucks. On the other hand there was the proof. In fact four customers drove from home, to my restaurant, to put money in the bowl. Apparently when the driver delivered the pizza they just didn't get it. But after re-reading the letter they felt a need to clear their consciences and make the trip back so they could place money on the bowl.

You could spot them coming across the parking lot. They looked like deer in the headlights, carrying this letter in their hands and speaking softly, "Where can I tip the driver? We were kind, gestured towards the bowl and they were relieved. My staff applauded. This is the stuff legends are made of. Before I forget, the fish bowl had over fifteen hundred dollars in it at eleven o'clock. We had ninety-five labor hours invested in that shift. Regardless of seniority or pay rate they split it equally, making a little over fifteen dollars an hour. Cash.

By seven o'clock even my hold out, Craig Allen, was a believer. In fact they suggested we do it every Friday night!

The rest is history. This promotion has been repeated annually in October since the first Free Night in 1991. The results, goodwill and word of mouth advertising are priceless. I'd like to make some suggestions to you if you decide to create your own Customer Appreciation Night.

  • Plan to be extremely busy. I guarantee you will.
  • Put your aces in their places. In other words station your strongest people on the phones, counters, delivery and so on. Bring back former super star employees that would like to help out for a reunion. We call them re-treads.
  • Role-play telephone, counter and delivery conversations. Play the game of "I say - you say," until the replies becomes automatic.
  • Give your guests a permanent gift above and beyond the meal. This may be a refrigerator magnet or a pizza buck.
  • Every time you get a non-customer to play, note it on the computer or guest check. Follow up with a thank you postcard several days after the event.
  • The following day's sales will be very busy. Within one week you will make up for any lost sales in increased business.
  • Prepare a press release. Invite radio and TV to interview exiting customers. Every body loves a feel good news story. It might as well star you.
  • Your competition will think you have finally gone over the edge. They will be so slow it will almost depress you. Not!
  • Thank everyone. Customers, employees, food suppliers and Pizza Marketing Quarterly.

Isn't time to take control of your marketing instead of allowing an advertising rep to do it for you at great cost and absolutely no guarantees? It's time to get out of the rut. What worked for you just last year doesn't work nearly as well anymore. Customers want, yearn to feel special. After all they are our lifeblood. How much are you willing to do to prove it to them? You must earn top of mind positioning by giving them something to talk about.

Next time I'll share how I developed a marketing strategy that cost me $ 400 and brought in over $90,000 in new sales. Until then keep in touch, have fun and make lotsa great pizzas.

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