John Pepper of Boloco: Acting On The Customer’s Voice

Are you listening to your customer?  Do you hear what they say and then take the appropriate action based on what you’ve just heard?  Or do you hear it and turn a blind eye?  Listening combined with action can have a powerful impact.  Tune in as John Pepper of Boloco shares with Brent Leary his personal experiences of how giving his customers a voice and following up with immediate action has positively impacted his business.

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John Pepper of BolocoSmall Business Trends: Can you tell us a little bit about Boloco, and a little bit of your personal background?

John Pepper: Boloco is a 20 unit restaurant chain based in Boston. We specialize in what we call globally inspired burritos.  What that means is that while we serve burritos very familiar to people, we actually look for culinary traditions from all over the world.  We take the best of those that are most popular to our customers and put them into tortillas.

We have been around for about 15 years.  We built ourselves on two tenants. One is using burritos to improve the quality of life of the average person who works in fast food, which is most of our employees. The second is how to give customers a different kind of voice with the company.  Allowing their voice to help steer how our company develops.

We serve about 60,000 people a week.  That’s a lot of transactions and a lot of opportunities to interact with customers.

Small Business Trends: How important was it to build the business on the voice of the customer?

John Pepper: There have been many businesses that don’t do that.  And there have been, unfortunately for all of us, successful ones that haven’t always given the customer a voice.

One of the things we thought we could do, just because we could, because we are so small, was say:

“Let’s see what happens if we always respond to the guest, if we always value what they say, even if we don’t like it.”

It has really become a part of our culture.

Small Business Trends: There was a study that said the vast majority of employees feel they would be able to increase the experience that customers had if they were given the opportunity.  How do you think that plays into the overall customer experience, giving employees what they need to create those better experiences?

John Pepper: First of all, there is the orientation that comes along with hiring new employees and saying to them:

“You are allowed to do this, don’t worry about the rules, don‘t worry about getting into trouble, your job is to take care of the customer, your job is to make that person leave happy.  And you have all kinds of leeway to do that.”

When it really comes time to deliver that, it’s amazing how people will go back to what they knew from a more restrictive company, because people don‘t want to get into trouble. But what we found is that over time, if we continue to say it over and over again, it really frees them to do things that even customers aren’t expecting.

You can’t just say it from the top down, the CEO. It has to be every single employee throughout the company free to deliver a great service.

Small Business Trends: So you set the tone, you’re not just selling it – you are living it?

John Pepper: Right. One requirement you can’t fabricate interest in is listening to customers.  So it turns out I am either paranoid, obsessed, one or the other, or any other combination. Beyond that, you know I do listen to social media. I’ll glance at Twitter when I have a free moment, mostly just looking at what people are saying about Boloco, so that if we have an opportunity to respond, we can do it quickly.

When we were first installing a software called, we did a free burrito day sponsored by those guys.  People were coming in and a few people were parking illegally. One person who came in to get their free burrito tweeted later, that free burrito cost me a $55 parking ticket.

That is the easiest layup example there is. Should we really cover that customer’s parking ticket? Our response is without even thinking about it, just do it. Trust. And somehow, what comes around goes around.

We have been doing those kind of things since day one. It really does come around. In a few of these cases, including this one that can be retweeted, the case that may cost you $55 has a very high rate of return in terms of just people really believing in the brand.

Small Business Trends: You mentioned the story where somebody was in one of your stores and tweeted that the music was a little too loud?

John Pepper: That was early on in social media and someone said ‘I wish Boloco would turn the music down.’

I saw it and I called the restaurant. I was at least two hundred miles away. I called the restaurant and said would you guys mind turning the music down? Then we delivered her a cookie and let her know that we have turned the music down.

That was a great example of being able to deliver a better experience through social media then putting a customer in a sometimes uncomfortable position of asking a manager to turn it down. It made it more fun and effective.

Small Business Trends: With this approach, what has it meant to the business?

John Pepper: People look at you and say ‘What are the things that allow you to feel comfortable doing that? What are the metrics? What are the measures?’  I guess it’s still pretty rare in this world to give the benefit of the doubt to customers, to human beings in general.  But we have been growing very significantly. Not just with new restaurants, but with sales increases, and more loyal customers.

Small Business Trends: I think it’s really cool you are using social media not to avoid customer interaction, but to enhance face to face customer interactions.

John Pepper: Some customers, and rightfully so, are going to look for these kind of things to be resolved at the restaurant level, and often times they are. The reality is that sometimes customers are not comfortable right at that moment, sharing their experience or what they need or what they want with a human being at that moment.  Later on, they think about it and they get to share it on their terms.

This interview is part of our One on One series of conversations with some of the most thought-provoking entrepreneurs, authors and experts in business today. This interview has been edited for publication. To hear audio of the full interview, click the right arrow on the gray player below. You can also see more interviews in our interview series.

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.