Specialise and survive

For a long time, I’ve told anyone that will listen that if they want to design customer-facing services of any kind, they need to spend some time working in the hospitality industry. Now I’m not some bell-ringing, national service loving idiot, I simply think it’s practical to have some sense of what it’s like to actually deliver a service to a living, breathing – often swearing – customer. But more and more, I think that major service providers can learn in a similar way, looking at how other industries have innovated in the way they interact with their customers.

Large organisations across the world have a depressing, ongoing obsession with trying to emulate Apple. It’s a jealous, boring habit that has spawned countless products, digital and physical, which aim to capture the enthusiasm for Cupertino-created magic, but relentlessly fall short of the mark. This repeating process of dull, half-arsed innovation focused around another’s apparent formula for success is like watching a dog chasing a car – the failure is inevitable and obvious to everyone except the hound.

It’d be cruel and naive of me to suggest that this behaviour is restricted to product design in big business – the service industry is as guilty of it as anyone. Local mini-markets emulate the likes of Tesco with nauseating regularity, selling inferior products at inflated prices, attempting to scale down a retail concept that relies in so many ways on that very size to be profitable, and being beaten at their own game by miniaturised versions of the very supermarkets that they try to copy. Bars are guilty of it too – in an industry where smaller pubs are shutting at a thundering rate, it’s the generic, tied boozers that are falling by the wayside, unable to adapt the Wetherspoon model of success to their own ventures, and hemorrhaging patrons who can both eat and drink for less money by visiting the supermarket.

On the other hand, some of the greatest examples of getting it right can be seen in bars. Previously, the best means of differentiation would very often stem from being the best place in a given locale to get the cheapest pint. The problem is, it’s very difficult for a small business to compete against huge organisations with enormous buying power in this respect. So why make that your focus? Instead, we’ve seen bars that embrace specialism and expertise as their selling point, and have seen them succeed.

Take Brewdog – the Fraserburgh brewery, led by the fearless, irreverent vision of its two founders, James Watt and Martin Dickie, which has five bars dotted across the UK. These bars – often opening in areas traditionally associated with low quality, high volume boozing, don’t stock a single recognisable, mass-brewed beer, but thrive on the ability of their staff to share their wisdom, turning customers into brand-loyal beer lovers by letting them taste the goods before committing to a sale, and even letting them change their mind if they don’t like it after a few mouthfuls. The guys manning the pumps, telling customers that they’re going to blow their minds, are as important as any of the marketing, as any of the drinks in the taps themselves. They’re a sales force that feels natural, approachable, intelligent and passionate, setting themselves apart by pushing the role of a barman towards a level of knowledge more akin to a sommelier. In the same way that I’ve been encouraged to try new cocktails by the barmen at the wonderful Happiness Forgets in Hoxton, the experience of being led astray, trying something new – hell, being let in on the secret – is magnificent.

You could go to Tescos, and you could buy enough beer to sit at home and have a great night in with your friends for a fraction of the cost of a night in town. Bars like Brewdog give a reason to come out and spend money on something that can’t be achieved in front of the TV at home. By narrowing their focus and capitalising on staff expertise to provide a customer experience that’s genuinely innovative – not just a watered-down version of a larger, successful organisation – they’re pulling in the punters as other pubs are shutting their doors, and proving the value of finding your own niche in a crowded or floundering marketplace.

Photo by Jim Wilson

    • Iain C
    • March 13th, 2012

    Some excellent points Mr Porteous. It takes balls to jump out they way they have and I’m glad it’s paying off.

    Looking forward to some brewdogging when I next see you.

    • Alex
    • March 13th, 2012

    I only ever really trust a barperson if they have the honesty to tell me when something sucks. Despite not being Brewdog’s biggest fan, I have to admit I really like their bars (only been to the Edinburgh one, but I imagine they all work on very similar principles). Consistent, quality staff makes all the difference.

    • harriet hunter
    • March 14th, 2012

    James, I always enjoy your blog – interesting and thouhgt provoking. Keep writing!

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