Stew Leonard's
Forget data driven decision-making and advanced analytics for a moment. Maybe the best way to measure customer experience is the simplest — and is crystalized in a single cup of lemonade. 

If you're trying to rationalize the connection between a slightly tart beverage and sweet engagement with your customers, you're making your first mistake. The connection has less to do with what you think than what you feel. This is not marketing Kool-Aid. This is time-tested, actual advice that turned a small store into a $400 million a year regional chain. Want a sip?

The Customer is Always Right

Contrary to what you have been told to believe, the customer is not always right. They lie. They exaggerate. Sometimes they are simply unreasonable. But those realities don't get in the way of the corporate philosophy at Stew Leonard's, a Norwalk, Conn.-based specialty food store.

At each of the four Stew Leonard's stores, the company policy is carved into a five-foot slab of rock that's strategically placed near the main doors. "Rule 1: The customer is always right. Rule 2: If the customer is ever wrong, reread Rule 1."

The Stew Leonard’s culture is built around an acronym for S.T.E.W.:

  • Satisfy the customer
  • Work together as a Team
  • Strive for Excellence in everything you do
  • Get the customer to say WOW

And the strategy has worked. Since it was founded in 1969, Stew Leonard's has evolved from a small dairy store with seven employees to a regional chain with more than 2,000 employees.

A Dairy Gone Wild

It's basically a dairy store gone wild. There's produce, an in-store bakery, meat and fish, a large selection of prepared foods, select groceries … oh, and dairy products. In addition to its original location, there are Stew Leonard's stores in Danbury and Newington, Conn. and Yonkers, N.Y.

The New York Times dubbed it the “Disneyland of Dairy Stores” and it was selected to Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work for in America” list for 10 consecutive years.

But more importantly, it seems to have won the hearts of its customers. As Laurie Danzi of suburban New York City explained after a recent shopping trip, "I love going to Stew's because of the people. Everyone smiles, and that makes me smile, too."

Learning Opportunities

What Matters

In an interview with CMSWire, John Fallon, director of marketing at Stew Leonard's, said the retailer is people-centric. As he explained, "I can teach someone how to cut meat. I can't teach someone to care about people."

And that brings us back to that cup of lemonade.

Last summer, on a trip to Stew Leonard's in Yonkers, I ordered a lobster dinner from the store's outdoor dining area. The $15.99 meal included a whole Maine lobster, French fries, corn on the cob and a fountain beverage.

I wanted lemonade. But when I went to the beverage dispenser, the lemonade was empty. It wasn't the end of the world: there were other options. But I asked the cashier anyway, just in case someone was planning to refill it. Her response, without hesitation, "Let me go inside the store and fill your cup from the other soda fountain."

No argument. No excuses. No delays. And that simple action put the company's whole approach to its customers into perspective. What can other retailers learn from this simple interaction? Here are seven things you can learn from that cup of lemonade.

  1. Meet your customer's expectations: Whether you're selling products or services -- anything from a cup of lemonade to a sophisticated big data platform -- your customers come to you with certain expectations in mind. Make sure you deliver on your promises.
  2. Now exceed them: In other words, take the goal of meeting your customer's expectations to a higher level. Give them something extra -- better service, faster delivery, deeper insights, improved pricing. Get them to say "wow!"
  3. Focus on the "Person" rather than "Personalization": In the quest to personalize everything from email to text messages, marketers may be overlooking the most important component. The person. Stew Leonard's doesn't put its customers' names on the email it sends, but the retailer gives every customer a personalized experience when he walks in the door.
  4. Train every employee to be customer-centric: Keeping the focus on the "person" and shifting a generic shopping experience to a personalized one starts with listening -- and empowering every employee to respond to the things he hears. If you ask a stock clerk at Stew Leonard's if the croissant donuts are as good as people say, he'll open the box and say "Try one." Those little things make customers feel like they are the most important person in the world.
  5. Even small problems are worth solving: Taking the time to solve a problem even if it seems insignificant -- no more lemonade -- assures customers that someone will be there to help them if a major issue develops down the line.
  6. Customers talk … a lot: A single cup of lemonade can become the centerpiece in conversations with family, friends, neighbors and even find its way into a story on a popular website.
  7. A smile goes a long way: Smiling is infectious. It makes customers feel welcome and helps to “create the environment I want for my employees and customers,” wrote Kirt Manecke, who turned his experience as a retailer into the book "Smile: Sell More with Amazing Customer Service." Have an online business? Then think of a smile as a friendly tone of voice.

As Fallon said, "Want happy customers? Then hire happy team members. It works."