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Bigger ears lead to better questions

One of the pleasures of working in a city is you usually get a good choice of restaurants because competition is fierce and everyone ups their game. Equally, there are fantastic restaurants in the countryside because they understand their number one challenge is to persuade you to make the effort in the first place, given the need to organise a taxi or offer to be the nominated driver (don’t look at me for that one!).

But what makes you go back?

The food? For sure. The service? Oh, I think so. The ambiance? Can play a big part. Who wants to sit by the toilet door or under the air con? The price? Actually, if the food, service and ambiance were all good it was money well spent and you’ll definitely be back again. If two out of three were good then you might put it down to bad luck, but will certainly make a comment about ‘at these prices I’d expect…’. But if two things were not good then it was overpriced and you’d probably not go back.

And so it is with clients and agencies. If you have a good kitchen and produce great work (whatever the theme of your restaurant happens to be) then clients will be prepared to pay you a visit, even if you are based outside a city. But, if service or ambiance aren’t up to scratch then you could soon be in trouble.

I remember going back to a restaurant I hadn’t been to in ages with a bunch of mates. It was at the high end of our price range so we were all hoping it lived up to its reputation rather than living off it. The menu had us drooling and the ambiance was spot on; having that lovely murmur of contented guests without the need to add anything more to it. The waiter came over and asked if we had any questions and told us about the specials of the day. So far so good.

Two of my friends are into their wines so the rest of us left to it to them to order, once they knew what food we were having. The wine duly came and the offer to taste the wine was accepted and……..well they didn’t like it. No problem said the waiter, let me call over the sommelier to help you.

The sommelier arrived and promptly asked about 4 questions, two of which clarified what they didn’t like about the wine and the other two were ‘a bit more like this or that?’ He then brought two bottles back, opened both and asked my friends to choose. They both chose the same one. He smiled. My friends smiled. Even those of us who know very little about wine smiled.

It was a lovely meal, the food and wine were outstanding, the ambiance was perfect for our little reunion. And the price was outrageous. So, will we go back? Absolutely!

Although it appears a small role in the above scenario, the waiter was all ears throughout and when there was a problem he not only knew what to do but who to call. The sommelier was the designated expert but his technique was to ask probing questions and it was the quality of these questions that demonstrated his knowledge and expertise. He didn’t tell us where he was trained or how long he’d been doing the job because he didn’t have to. Like a doctor in A&E who says, ‘where does it hurt’ and ‘does it hurt when I do this, or that?’ The best people know the right questions to ask in order to get to the answer, fast.

We are seeing a worrying trend from clients on two fronts. First, those asking us to manage pitches for them are telling us that the main reason for calling the pitch is that ‘no one seems to understand my business’. Second, those for whom we audit client: agency relationships are not only repeating the previous statement but adding ‘the agency seems to be trying to cross-sell me services all the time’ i.e. ‘they seem more interested in their business than mine’.

So, something has gone wrong in the way the restaurant is being run. The waiter no longer listens or knows who to go to solve a problem and can offer nothing better than an apology. The waiter has become an order taker who relies on the guest to know what they want. In other words a fast food restaurant.

Who in your agency are the best people at asking questions? Who are the people who know who to call in when there is a problem? Who are the people who can walk the client through ‘today’s specials’? Who are the people who know that this is your usual table; that you like Tunnock cakes with your tea and two sweeteners? Who are the people who understand what service really means?

Client Service is not a passive role it’s a proactive tool for keeping a client beyond three years, one that gives you a second chance if, through bad luck, the food is off one day or the only table is by the toilets.

You’re the person who knows the right questions to ask and the right person who can answer them. Being a top Maitre D’ is an important role in a restaurant and so it should be in agencies.

We believe this is a real opportunity and now is the time to work out what needs to change to address these “live” issues, and the repetitive ones too. If you agree or have a point of view on the matter then please join us on 3 October at the Ivy Club where we will share our views and have our BIG EARS open to the views within your agencies.


Tony Spong and Vicky Gillan, Managing Partners, AAR.

Who should attend?

Agency senior management, heads of clients services and those leading client business.