Fast Company’s 2nd annual Innovation Festival brought together an amazing line-up of innovative thinkers-and-doers from across a wide spectrum of industries. Of particular interest was a session with Danny Meyer of the Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) and Neil Blumenthal of Warby Parker, to discuss the impact of technology on customer experience, both in retail and restaurants. Along with creating a stimulating discussion on the topic of technology, the conversation also highlighted the growing importance of a “hospitality” mindset far beyond the world of restaurants and hotels.

Among the many interesting exchanges, several themes were highlighted:

  • Using technology as a way to “increase human touch”: From Meyer’s “technology should never be used to remove people from the process” – to Warby Parker’s use of only implementing customer-facing technology for “low value” interaction (payment), in order to increase critical staff time for “high value” customer interaction (product selection), both speakers view technology as a tool to create efficiencies that allow for more human-to-human contact, not less.
  • Collecting dots, knowing your customer: Both Meyer and Blumenthal agreed that one of the keys to creating successful customer interactions, whether in retail or restaurant, is knowing as much about your customer as possible. Both implement low tech solutions but agreed that digital technology is creating powerful tools that allow them to do so much more. Meyer cited his ABCD rule – “Always Be Collecting Dots, so you can be Always Connecting Dots”, as his technology agnostic mantra, to use every opportunity to know more about your customers, so that you can anticipate their wants and needs. Take for example the USHG partnership with Resy (the online reservation group) to connect their reservations database with their POS system in order to create customer profiles – to know not only when and where someone ate but now what they ordered, dietary restrictions, wine preferences and more. With these types of digital tools a level of personalization can be created that once was only available at five-star restaurants and luxury retailers.
  • Social media, being part of the conversation: Dedicating significant resources to it, both speakers understand the importance of social media to their businesses. From USHG’s use of Venga technology to collect and aggregate all the digital conversations happening about their restaurants, to Warby Parker’s use of staff video responses to Tweeted customer questions, they both understand how critical it is to always be part of the conversation. Meyer specifically discussed the ability to respond in real time to an issue, so that masses of people don’t hear about it before the brand does. The sooner they can hear about an issue, the sooner they can fix it and transform that customer’s experience. In longer time frames, it also allows them to collect information and pick-up on any patterns that might arise, good and bad, and help them embrace or address them. In the case of Warby Parker’s video Tweet responses, beyond using them to “increase human touch” in the communication, which has proven to be a great tool in defusing contentious moments, the videos have become great marketing opportunities, retweeted tens of thousands of times.
  • Staffing, use good tomatoes: Finally, both speakers drove home their belief that the wide variety of technologies they utilize are only tools and in the end only as good as the staff that uses them. From Warby Parker’s, “proactive, curious and passionate” hiring profile to USHG’s “High HQ (Hospitality Quotient) Profile”, they both are passionate that it comes down to people interacting with people. Using all the tools at their disposal, from artificial intelligence to eye contact, a great team uses every opportunity to create connections with customers, connections that transform those moments from “commodity exchanges” to a unique and memorable brand experience. Meyer strongly feels that there is a direct connection between staff happiness and customer happiness, one can never be greater than the other. Summing up this staffing philosophy with something he learned from his chefs … “the best tomato sauce recipe is only as good as the tomatoes you put into it”.