5 Customer Service lessons from Andhra Bhavan Canteen

Tucked away in the heart of Lutyens Delhi is the Andhra Bhavan canteen. Every weekend, serpentine queues form outside this simple nondescript building to partake of their delicious Andhra meals (unlimited), their spicy chicken and mutton curries and their fabled chicken biryani. The fare is consistently finger-licking good, the price unbelievably reasonable, and those who go here, like my wife and I, do so again. And again. And before I proceed, this is not a plug advertorial, or a restaurant review, or even an opinion article about whether Andhra Bhavan should now be divided into Telangana and Seemandhara Bhavan.

Last weekend, after gorging ourselves on a week’s quota of carbs, as my wife and I were driving back home, we got talking about how this eatery has managed to retain us as satisfied customers – since my first stint in Delhi in the mid-1990s, to now, almost 20 years later. So this blog entry is about 5 things that every business – particularly those wanting to attract and retain customers in the digital age – can learn from the Andhra Bhavan Canteen.

1 Start with a great customer proposition
Which addresses a core customer need of your chosen target market, or solves a basic customer problem. In this instance, where can I go to get a simple, inexpensive meal that is tasty, filling and yet does not burn a hole in my pocket? For those who want kathi rolls or Indian Chinese or momos or sushi, there are tons of places that you can go to in Delhi. APB is not one of them. Thali meals and biryani are what you get here. Period. But arguably the tastiest, most authentic thali meals, and a true to type Hyderabadi biryani. Those are the choices. Henry Ford would have approved.
Particularly for the pure play online businesses, this is an important lesson – keep it simple. And keep the proposition sharply focused. And do not, for heaven’s sake, try to be all things to all people. You will end up being central to no one. Be known in your chosen niche. And then you don’t have to invest the big bucks in SEO and SEM and online marketing. Your customers will do the marketing for you, and become your brand spokespersons.

2 Figure out your fulfilment model
And no, you don’t have to invest millions of dollars to have state of the art infrastructure. As far as I can recall, APB has not expanded their brick and mortar capacity in 20 years. 162 seats (plus 62 “special seating”) is all they have. For 20 years. And no branches or franchises. But they have this incredibly smart and effective way of handling the weekend crowds and serpentine queues. You first go in, place your order, make the payment and get a token number. You then wait outside till the courteous staff calls out your number, when you squeeze through the crowds to be escorted to your table.

See how this works? Right upfront you have paid. And are therefore committed to the purchase decision. And the no fuss menu and the swift service means they can flip tables in approx. 20 minutes. Operations research and supply chain professionals – take notes. The ingredients are standard, their sourcing local, and just-in-time production means no storage, wastage, inventory carrying. And great quality. In all the years we have been patrons here, there has never been one occasion of poor quality or a suboptimal customer experience. The food is always fresh, piping hot and tasty. We have never encountered a waiter frazzled by the crowds and in bad humour, the cashiers and managers never stressed out. That is consistency in fulfilment. And the cornerstone of a great client experience.

3 And a corollary – under-commit and over-deliver
The usher tells you the approximate wait time – let’s say he says half an hour. You are mentally prepared for this. And even as you are making small talk with your lunch companion, or more likely, furiously flipping screens on your smartphone, your number is called. Inevitably before the committed time. A strategy which should be an e-commerce staple, which the Amazons and Flipkarts of the world use consistently to wow you.

4 Customer service is too important to be left only to the frontline and customer service folks
Every time we have been to Andhra Bhavan, the owner(s) of Sai Caterers are right there in the middle of the action. And the genial portly partner, whose name I think is Satyanarayana, is always present. Calling out tokens. Speaking to patrons in 5 different languages. Gently asking the crowds to give way. Despite the rush, never ever losing his cool. And in the middle of all this, making sure that the katoris in the thali are replenished and recommending side dishes.
Do you think the waiters can ever slack off? Or be indifferent or rude? Not likely, with their boss closely watching what they are doing, and not only that, leading by example. Southwest’s Herb Kelleher is a master at this. So was Jobs. Or Walt Disney. Skilled at orchestrating consistent customer experiences in a predictable, consistent, day-after-day manner, which is beautiful in impact. When was the last time any of you spent time in your call centres taking customer calls? Who was the last irate customer you personally met? How many sales calls did you make today?

5 Speed is a core virtue
And a competitive differentiator. Customers in today’s low attention span wired world not only appreciate, but in fact demand instant gratification. By the time you are seated at your table at APB, the waiter appears instantly and takes your token and your order, and the plates arrive within seconds thereafter. The thalis are “unlimited” which means you can have seconds of all the dishes in the katoris again and again. And every time you run out of veggies or sambar or chutnies, you only need look up and someone is solicitously refilling your plate.
Which means that the end-to-end turnaround is never more than half an hour. No delay. No lingering. No fuss. The reason we spend hours analyzing going over load time statistics on our landing page, or how we can crunch days or hours in our insurance policy issuance process is precisely this. Today’s customers love speed. And crashing turnaround times is not only a customer wow, but forces you to enhance the levels of efficiency in your processes. Drives you to reduce/eliminate/redesign from a customer facing perspective. And a happy side effect – helps you improve your cost/revenue dynamics by virtue of the fact that the same infrastructure supports a higher throughput.

So check out Sai Caterers at Andhra Bhavan, Ashoka Road this weekend. And aside from the spiciest tastiest meal you will have (if you are an Andhra cuisine fan like me), be prepared to walk away with a working blueprint for expanding your customer footfalls and going from good to great in customer experience!

About Ramachandran TR

A bit about me – Post my MBA, I have been in Financial Services for 24 years now. My day job as CEO is running a Life Insurance company. Leadership, developing Talent and Strategy formulation are areas of interest. I am keen to promote financial literacy in this country and regularly speak at forums and contribute articles encouraging people to consider prudent financial planning, and demystify financial services for the layman. Another area where I wish to make a difference is education for underprivileged children.