Hospitality is Key to Customer Success: What Software Companies Can Learn from Shake Shack

Blake Bartlett, Partner by

Perhaps the best model for customer success is that of hospitality. I’ve learned a lot about true hospitality by studying famed New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, the genius behind such enduring New York institutions as Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern.

Meyer has tackled every cuisine from barbecue to Indian to burgers & fries, and the elegant simplicity and originality of the food most certainly speaks for itself. However, what you will find most memorable about his restaurants is not the food, but the experience you enjoy as a guest. And that’s intentional.

Meyer has built his empire on the philosophy of true hospitality (officially known as “Enlightened Hospitality”), which goes far beyond traditional notions of customer service.

Hospitality is being on the guest’s side.

In his book, Setting The Table, Meyer differentiates between service and hospitality with the following:

“Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of the product makes a recipient feel. To be on a guest’s side requires listening to that person with every sense and following up with a thoughtful, gracious, appropriate response.”

The world of enterprise software can learn a lot from this distinction, and I see a strong parallel comparison between support and success. In the past, software companies could get by with merely mastering the technical delivery of a product. It was the norm to ship a login key, charge a fortune on professional services to make the software usable, reactively respond to support problems, and then ask for a renewal 30 days before the contract was up.

Today, this antiquated model is becoming less and less relevant and we’re all hustling to transform support into a more customer-first model called customer success. The problem is that “customer success” can often be reduced to merely modern industry jargon for “account management”. But we must resist going down that familiar road and instead embrace a new paradigm. Danny Meyer describes service as a monologue where the vendor decides how they want to do things and sets their own standards for delivery. However, he goes on to describe hospitality as a customer-first dialogue built on listening, empathy and generosity.

In order to really embody customer success, the orientation needs to shift in favor of the customer. We need to truly be on their side in every way. This means starting the dialog with their KPIs in mind, not your own.

The aim of customer success cannot be merely reducing churn. The aim must truly be their success – whatever that means to your customer.

The customer success dialogue doesn’t begin when the contract is up for renewal. Nor does it begin when the customer contacts support. It doesn’t even begin when you’ve signed a contract and are ready to onboard the customer.

The customer success dialogue is the beginning. It’s the essence of the company and should be woven into your answer to fundamental questions like, “Why do we exist as a company?” Are we here to merely achieve unicorn status or get acquired? Or are we here to truly solve a real customer problem? If it’s the latter, then the customer dialogue should permeate everything you do — from product architecture to user experience design to every touch point of the customer journey outlined above.

I’ll share a final Shake Shack anecdote from Fast Company’s July 2015 profile of the burger chain that vividly illustrates how to shift the foundation of a customer dialogue from a company’s own KPIs toward the customer’s definition of value. Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti told his fresh-faced team at a new store’s grand opening the following:

“…Put us out of business because you are so damn generous with what you give to the people who walk in this door. If there’s a kid crying, who’s going to walk over with a free cup of custard? I challenge you to put us out of business with how generous you are. Go do it. Give away free stuff.”

That’s hospitality. That’s being on the customer’s side. What would this look like for your startup? Do you believe enough in true customer success to tell your tell your whole team to be so generous that they put you out of business? Danny Meyer and team did it with Shake Shack. Tony Hsieh did it with Zappos. Will you?

Image by: Rachel Worthman

New Call-to-action
  • Awesome. I love to “pleasantly overwhelm” clients by over-delivering value/benefits. Thanks so much for this great article… & confirmation!

  • Michael Q

    Blake, With respect, do you honest to God believe that? I’m sincerely interested in knowing. Not just a few custards, but an extraordinary service commitment that costs enough to actually risk the venture? In real life isn’t the VC board member more likely to warn the CEO that he’s risking his job, than to encourage?

  • Blake Bartlett

    @disqus_whmb0boBkK:disqus – thanks for your feedback. Yes I do believe that. I believe that if we’re going to call it “customer success” that it needs to really be about the customer’s success, and not primarily our own KPIs. If you truly make your customers successful, it’s going to pay handsome dividends to the company. Obviously, this is built on the back of a sound economic model. Shake Shack is a business. They sell burgers, fries and custard. And their prices aren’t cheap. Their commitment to Enlightened Hospitality doesn’t mean that they stop charging money for food. Similarly, a software company should price their subscription service wisely and maintain discipline in managing their operating metrics, while still being oriented toward true customer success. I don’t see these goals as mutually exclusive in the long-run of a business.

  • I believe this to be true deep down in my soul. I’d go a greater step forward to say that Enlightened Hospitality is not just the lens of looking at your customers but more importantly, your employees. In the book Danny says they serve their employees first before their clients. That’s the type of servant leadership that builds epic companies with legendary organizational health. If you have that, everything else will follow.

  • Blake Bartlett

    @kylegporter:disqus – agreed. The model of Enlightened Hospitality is very intentional about the ranking of stakeholders. Employees are first, and investors are last. He says that if it was the other way around (investors are #1), that “there will inevitably be a revolving door of staff members who, finding themselves in a business culture that does not place their own or their customers’ interests ahead of the other key stakeholders, will quickly cease to feel particularly proud, motivated, or enthusiastic about coming to work.”